Departments of ag struggling to universally define ‘local’

Senior Editor

(July 7, 2015) It’s that season. The corn is local. The tomatoes are local. The cucumbers are local
But what’s “local?”
The state departments of agriculture, which administer many of the farmers’ markets within their jurisdictions, have found it necessary to define “local” to prevent their respective “buy local, eat fresh” sales pitches from being misused.
In Maryland the squabble ended up on the governor’s desk but ducked any hard core definition of “local.”
That was in 2010. The Maryland General Assembly passed, and then Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law regulations requiring businesses that advertise raw meat, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables, shellfish and processed dairy products as “local” or being “locally grown”, “regionally grown” or “produced,” or otherwise represented as having originated close by, must have point-of-sale signage indicating the state of origin.
According to a recent New Jersey Farm Bureau newsletter, the Garden State is facing similar decisions.
Peter Furey, veteran executive director of NJFB, wrote that the NJFB “is following the State Board of Agriculture/NewJersey Department of Agriculture’s proposed policy that anywhere in the state is considered ‘locally grown.’”
In consideration of produce grown out-of-state but just across the border, Furey said, the rule allows for a “locally grown designation” provided it also is labeled by location of where it is grown .
“This does not have any limit, on the theory that the consumer will draw his/her own conclusion about whether they want to buy from, for example, Ohio-grown produce.”
Of course , Furey added, the retailer has the option of putting up Ohio produce as just fresh produce or allowing the package to indicate where it comes from.
The NJDA rules, as do similar regulations in other states, are designed, of course, simply to prevent the abuse of putting out out-of-state produce under a “locally grown” tag.
The NJFB directors’ action, which had one dissenting vote, included an important stipulation: Out-of-state produce seeking a “locally grown” designation need only be identified by state of origin, not state plus locality of origin as contained in the proposal.
The formal comment period on the New Jersey defintion ended on July 3. The Farm Bureau directors’ vote will enable Farm Bureau’s statement of support to be filed on behalf of its membership.
Opposition to the proposal has surfaced as well. Produce brokers and distributors dislike its intervention into current business practices, and there are wholesale market growers who follow this opinion.
The New Jersey Food Council, which represents the supermarket industry, is also firmly opposed and has made its opinion known on the  record already.
One argument of theirs is that the USDA uses a 400-mile limit from origin as the basis for defining “a locally or regionally produced agricultural food product.”
However, that definition also includes an additional clause to the definition: “... or within the state in which it is produced.”
This latter definition is the one chosen by the State Board of Ag and the State Ag Convention for its policy and is therefore consistent with USDA/Farm Bill policy.