When it comes to produce, what does the word "local" really mean? For Earl F. "Buddy" Hance, it was pretty clear what it shouldn't mean: Strawberries grown in California and advertised as local in a Maryland grocery store left a sour taste in his mouth.
Unlike most consumers, Maryland's agriculture secretary was in a position to do something about such a misleading claim. So at Mr. Hance's request — and with unanimous approval from the state legislature last year — the department is in the process of adopting regulations requiring grocers and other retailers that advertise produce as local to indicate exactly what state it was grown in.
Thus, an apple grown near Cumberland will have to be identified as being from Maryland, a cabbage from Erie as Pennsylvania and a peanut from Roanoke as a product of Virginia. A strawberry grown in Marin County could still be advertised as local, but the mandatory sign indicating it came from California would make the claim seem pretty laughable.
While the new regulations are a step in the right direction, they don't go far enough. Why indicate only the state and not require stores to label more precisely where each apple, cabbage or strawberry was grown — as some already do voluntarily?
Mr. Hance and others say the problem is that some of the big grocery store chains would struggle to keep such an exact accounting. When you buy apples by the ton, no single farmer can supply all a chain's needs, and keeping products segregated by farm of origin would be a chore. Some might be inclined to avoid the problem by not buying local at all.
Yet for consumers, marking goods by state of origin is not necessarily much help. By the state agriculture department's own survey, most Maryland consumers believe "local" refers to produce grown no more than 30 miles away. By that standard, a Washington County apple would not be local to a Baltimorean, but one grown in York, Pa. might be. Yet how would the buyer know if all he or she has to go on is that one came from Maryland and the other Pennsylvania?
The interests of the general public should reign supreme, and that means "local" should not be treated merely as a means to market Maryland-grown fruits and vegetables. For many of us trying to reduce our carbon footprints or simply improve air quality, the difference between a cantaloupe grown 300 miles away or 10 miles away is not insignificant.
Interestingly, officials had originally hoped to be able to define local more exactly (by mileage, for instance) but, as an advisory board concluded, the designation can be problematic. The only workable answer is to require more specific information about where something was grown, and let consumers decide whether it's local or not.
Still, Mr. Hance deserves some credit for making the effort. Only a handful of states have tried to regulate what local really means. Some vendors — farmer's markets, particularly — are quite scrupulous about ensuring the designation is meaningful. But it's not fair to them when others make that claim about produce grown thousands of miles away.
State officials expect the new rules to take effect in several months. Vendors who fail to comply could face a fine of up to $500.
The benefits of buying local are clear: Food grown nearby is more likely fresh and tasty. Buying local supports farmers, a potential boon for the state's economy and the environment. It also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
But consumers can't make an informed choice without the requisite information. State of origin is helpful; town or county would be even better. Retailers would be wise to take that next step on their own, state law or no. And those who don't? Consumers left in the dark should ask store managers exactly where their produce is coming from.