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Originally published April 14, 2011 at 5:50 PM | Page modified April 15, 2011 at 6:26 AM

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Miles of confusion over what 'locally grown' means

The No. 2 official at the U.S. Agriculture Department got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries "local."

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The No. 2 official at the U.S. Agriculture Department got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, D.C., Kathleen Merrigan recently saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.

The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, has fewer chemicals and comes from smaller, less corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word "local" in food marketing. It's the latest big thing after "organic," another subject of labeling controversy.

But what does local mean? Sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

"It's a sales gimmick," says Allen Swann, a Maryland farmer who became frustrated when he realized a nearby grocery chain was selling peaches and corn from New York and New Jersey as local produce. "They are using the word local because of the economic advantage of using the word local."

A federal definition is unlikely because of the diversity of the nation's crops and growing regions. A set distance or definition that works for one state or one crop may not make sense for others. But some states have taken a crack at it.

Vermont defines "local" as grown within the state or within 30 miles of where it is sold. Massachusetts has similar restrictions for the word "native." Numerous other states have made it easier for local farmers to advertise that their food was produced in-state.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has found there is no generally accepted definition of local food. With few regulations, retailers have different standards.

Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state in which it is sold.

Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to store managers.

The Agriculture Department says consumer preferences for locally grown food can mean more jobs and profits for local farmers and higher produce sales in stores. The department estimates that locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year, up from $5 billion in 2007.

Merrigan says the local movement has bigger challenges than labeling, such as bringing enough infrastructure to rural areas and widening distribution networks as consumers demand more locally grown food.

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And they will continue to demand it, says Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at The Hartman Group, a Seattle-based consumer-research group. She says the company's surveys show that consumer preferences for local foods have surmounted preferences for organic foods, and they will want food grown closer and closer to home as the trend continues.

"The idea of local is very beautiful to people," she says. "In the consumer's mind, it represents a simpler, more gentler time."

The produce and retail industries see tremendous opportunities in the trend.

Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association says the local label is generating the same enthusiasm as the organic movement, because consumers are learning more about what they buy.

Many stores have rearranged their purchasing and distribution networks to buy food closer to home. Others who can't bring in local produce will instead post a picture of the farmer or the name of the farm to help consumers feel more connected, Gilmer said.

Merrigan says consumers will have to "be smart and ask tough questions" to make sure they are really getting local foods.

"It requires consumers to help police this and for retailers to be honest brokers if this is all going to work out," she says. "And we want it to work out."

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