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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 12/17/2010

What is 'local' food? MD has an idea. Sort of.

By Tim Carman
maryland blue crabs_opt.jpg Blue crabs: the royalty of local foods in Maryland. (Mark Gail for The Washington Post)

The main issue for the locavore movement is definition. How do you define local food? What is the very outer marker for a product that desires to carry the covetous "local" sticker? And what is the boundary across which the carbon footprint is just too mammoth to justify a product's consumption under the righteous banner of locavorism?

Those are the questions.

The state of Maryland is hoping to apply a little legal muscle to the definition of "local," with the idea that hard rules might prevent locavore consumers from getting ripped off at grocery stores and farmers markets. The state's Department of Agriculture today published proposed rules that aim to, once and for all, define local food, based on input from farmers, retail representatives, consumer advocates and others. I know you're dying to know how Maryland defined the term, so I won't keep you waiting.

The moment of truth...

A person may not advertise any agricultural product for sale as local or locally grown, or use any term that may lead a consumer to believe that the product is local or locally grown, including such a term as “regional”, unless the advertisement includes a disclosure of the place of origin, naming the state where the product was originally grown or raised, or in the case of fish or shellfish, the state where the product was raised or landed.

You read right. The state essentially puts the burden back on you. The best you'll get is an assurance that the product comes from the state labeled on the package (although Maryland is also encouraging retailers to list the farms from which the products come, too). Here's the state's reasoning for its timid approach:

Due to the fact that consumers do not agree on one definition, the Department does not propose to define for consumers what is or is not local. Instead, by requiring businesses to disclose the origin of the product, consumers can make their own determination as to whether a food advertised as “local” meets their own standards. This is the same model of regulation that the State uses in the case of the advertising of kosher and halal foods.

You can read the proposed rules in the Maryland Register (PDF form). You can also comment on them by writing Mark Powell, chief of marketing, Maryland Department of Agriculture, 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401. Or by calling 410-841-5775 or e-mailing PowellMS@mda.state.md.us. Or by faxing comments to 410-841-5957. Comments will be accepted through Jan. 18, 2011.

By Tim Carman  | December 17, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics, Food labeling, Shopping  | Tags:  Maryland Department of Agriculture, Tim Carman, locavore  
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Comments

It's a fair start. One common definition is 'within 100 miles'. In my area I've seen food advertised as local and seasonal that included ingredients such as avocadoes that come from at least a thousand miles away (from MA.) Or you hear about the 'local coffee' from Vermont. Processed in Vermont, grown on other continents. Or the farm stands, which you assume are selling their own produce, are simply filling out the shelves with produce from California.

More commonly my grocery store labels CT and RI as local, which you think about and say, yeah, you know, that's not too bad; likely enough within 100 mi. Is PA really the closest source for organic Thanksgiving turkeys? Well no, but you have to be really tuned in to find the NH ones, and I don't have a source in MA. Business opportunity? (-;

As a gardener and a CSA member I have a pretty good idea of what's doable in our area -- and CSAs and winter farmer's markets are really taking off the last couple of years. Right now I'm eating pea greens and lentil sprouts, grown on my windowsill, and homegrown butternuts, garlic, and leeks. The October pumpkins-on-the-porch image really resonates, with me. Did you know that if they are sound, fall harvested butternuts will keep till May or June?

Posted by: Stanwell | December 18, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

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