We know that buying and eating local is better for the environment, and that local produce often tastes better because it’s fresher and hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse. But do the “local” labels on food at your grocery store really mean what you think they do?
A USA Today investigation has revealed that a number of “buy local” programs aren’t actually as straightforward as many consumers might be led to believe. The investigation looked at “buy local” programs in every state, and found that many don’t have a minimum number of local ingredients that need to be from the state or even the country to be considered “local,” and most programs have no evidence of ever having been regulated or enforced.
“The word local is chic; it sells things,” said University of California Cooperative Extension horticulture and small-farms advisor Cindy Fake. “So it’s used by everybody and anybody.”
In one example, imported coffee beans were allowed to be called “local” in Utah if they were roasted in Utah. In another, peanuts that were shipped into Oklahoma were labelled as “Made in Oklahoma” after being turned into peanut butter.
Programs in 18 states were found to have no minimum number of locally grown ingredients for food to be called “local,” and 40 out of 50 states had no record of enforcing their “buy local” programs or removing any company from their programs in the past five years. You can see the data for each state here.
In Alabama, for example, there’s no minimum for ingredients required to be labelled “Buy Alabama’s Best.” In Colorado, just 50 percent of the ingredients in food are required to be local in order for it to be labelled local under the “Colorado Proud” program.
Michigan Development Council PR director Michelle Grinnell said that the Pure Michigan program doesn’t have the resources to see if companies are misusing the local label.
“We’re not going out there checking for people misusing the logo,” said Grinnell. “We don’t have the staff resources for that.”
But if the Michigan Economic Development Council does see misuse, via outside complaints or during the process for applying, Grinnell said they would “make sure it’s formal or we work with them to find other solutions that we could help provide them.”
Not all states have the same guidelines. New York and New Jersey programs both require 100 percent of ingredients to be local in order to qualify for the states’ respective programs, New York State Grown and Certified and Jersey Fresh.
However, while New Jersey requires farms to undergo annual inspections to assure that food is being grown in-state and meets USDA Grade 1 standards, in New York the investigation found that there was no record of annual audits or reviews to make sure companies were complying with the program’s rules.
“There is a huge diversity across states about what is local,” said Gail Feenstra, the deputy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
That doesn’t mean that buying locally grown produce or locally sourced goods isn’t a good idea, but it’s important to be informed and know whether or not your “local” food is actually made with locally grown ingredients.
Feenstra said it’s important for shoppers to do research as to what the labels on their food really mean.
For example, in New York, while the New York State Grown and Certified label requires 100 percent of ingredients to be local, the state’s other “buy local” programs, Taste NY and Pride of New York, have different requirements.
The Pride of New York program was less regulated and simply included products that were made in the state. The program has been replaced with the more strict Grown and Certified program, but state commissioner of Agriculture and Markets Richard Ball said that Pride of New York stickers are “still around.”
“An awful lot of our growers have Pride of New York on their bushel boxes and packages,” said Ball. “And it still means something in the marketplace, but we’re going to stop advocating for that and advocate for New York Grown & Certified, which carries this additional weight and will mean more. And that’s what we are going to market going forward.”
If you want to buy local with more transparency, why not go to the source? Buying local and seasonal produce at farmers’ markets in your area is a great way to know where your food is coming from, and you can often talk to the people who grew it if you have any questions.
Fake also suggested that seeking out “hyper-local” brands that promote a specific farm can be a more reliable indicator of whether a product was really grown locally.
For more info on eating locally and healthily, try downloading the Food Monster App, with over 10,000 plant-based recipes. It’s available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. Full of allergy-friendly recipes, subscribers gain access to new recipes every day.
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