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'Locally grown' produce? Look closer

February 3, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
We know food prices are skyrocketing -- especially organics. So many produce sections are stocking food that is locally grown. Environmental experts say it saves energy and decreases pollution by cutting the distance from farm to table. But buyer beware, local may not be as close as you think."Buy local" is big these days, but what exactly does it mean? In the area? Close to your house? A two- or three-minute drive?

"Buy local" means very different things to different retailers. There's no federal definition of the term from either the Federal Trade Commission or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means anyone can use it.

"There are no regulations or standards right now on what locally grown is," explains food marketing researcher Christine Bruhn from UC Davis.

Bruhn says that's why the classification varies from supermarket to supermarket. Walmart, for example, considers anything grown and purchased within the same state to be local. For Whole Foods Markets, local is anything that can be trucked into stores within a day. And SuperTarget stores label anything within 100 miles of the store as local.

"It might be a decision that a supermarket or a restaurant makes that may or may not coincide with what the consumer thinks is locally grown," said Bruhn.

In a recent study, consumers were asked to define "local." Half believed that's something made or produced within 100 miles. Another 37 percent said it was made or produced in their state.

Another source of confusion concerns nutrition. The assumption by many that buying local is healthier is not necessarily the case.

"Some people are buying local because they think the locally grown food is fresher or more nutritious, and really that depends on how soon that product has been processed," said Bruhn.

It's also depends on when the food is shipped. Being grown closer doesn't automatically make it better.

Bruhn says when consumers see the "local" sign they should feel free to ask the grocer exactly what that means.


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