(March 19, EDITOR’S COLUMN)

TAMPA, Fla. — The more I hear about the specifics of local sourcing agreements, the more I fear the trend is a ticking time bomb.

With all the work the produce industry has done in the wake of the fall 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak and last summer’s salmonella fiasco, it seems it could be so quickly undone by one summer food safety scare.

At the Southeast Produce Council’s annual Southern Exposure convention, March 5-7 in Tampa, an unpleasant reality was brought into the light at a workshop.

“We’re working with our growers to start the GAP certification process,” said Jeff Parker, business manager of produce procurement for Ukrops Supermarkets Inc., Richmond, Va., at the March 7 morning session titled “Defining Locally Grown: How to Strengthen the Connection to our Farms.”

Not certified

It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to determine he’s saying many of his chain’s local suppliers are not certified for good agricultural practices, and they’re not yet in the process.

Not to pick on Ukrops, because the chain is certainly not alone.

The more I talk to retailers and established suppliers, the more I realize how far the local trend is behind the much more important food safety movement.

But neither suppliers nor retailers want to deny the consumer demand for local, in-season fresh fruits and vegetables, so there’s a disconnect.

When asked about the food safety risks in the Q&A section of the workshop, Parker acknowledged the predicament.

“We’re one disaster away from trouble for locally grown,” he said.

Food safety may not be as big a problem on the local level, said panelist Adam Lytch, Southeast grower development director for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.

In an interview after the workshop, Lytch said his experience finds that local growers aren’t any less safe than food safety certified ones. It’s that they can’t afford the documentation.

“We have weeded out a lot of growers who didn’t meet our food safety standards,” he said.

Parker said Ukrops is working to find financial support for its smallest local growers who can’t afford audits, and that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

More than locavores

Being a locavore is as silly as twittering on what you ate for breakfast. Does it surprise anyone that the term locavore was coined four years ago in San Francisco?

But sourcing local, in-season fresh produce makes sense on too many levels (taste, transportation, environment, price), and a broad group of consumers confirm its rise, not just some odd colony from the Bay Area.

The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2009 found 53% of consumers said they bought more locally grown produce than one year ago and 73% said they bought more than five years ago.

What is local?

Outside the food safety issue, marketing of local has been inconsistent at best, and downright unethical at worst.

Without any rules, “local” is up to some debate. There’s a reasonable variance to what defines local, whether it’s 100 miles from a store or distribution center, within a state or even within a day’s drive by truck.

Panelist Michael Gonzalez, sales manager for Sysco’s Florida division, said the company defines “local” as within 250 miles.

Parker said Ukrops says all crops grown in Virginia are local.

Chef and author Tony Merola said he considered everything within a five-state radius as local, and he’s based in New Jersey.

Lytch said in the workshop, “It means whatever our customer wants it to mean.”

Unfortunately, some suppliers and retailers stretch it to where it becomes meaningless.

Session moderator Ronnie De La Cruz, president of De La Cruz Training and Consulting Services, Salinas, Calif., said he was in a store where kiwifruit were labeled local.

After he inquired about the origin and found out they were from New Zealand, De La Cruz said the produce department clerk told him they were local to New Zealand.

Even don’t-call-me-motivational-speaker Harold Lloyd joked in his lunch general session presentation March 7 that he’s seen bananas labeled as local at stores where he lives in the Midwest.

Sure, every item is local to somewhere.

It’s not really reasonable to talk about true “local standards” like the USDA national organic program or the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement.

Lytch said a distinction needs to be made between local and regional because a retailer may find something closer that doesn’t really fit a local definition.

That seems reasonable.

Can the industry at least come to a consensus and police itself to keep abusers from claiming everything is local?

How about at least nothing outside a one-day drive, or about a 600-mile radius, is local?

Retailers who aren’t actively moving local suppliers into GAP or GAP-like programs and who abuse the term local risk turning locally grown from a movement into a fad.

Food safety risks could damage local movement
Greg Johnson
Editor