Researcher: “Locally Grown” Label Sows Consumer Confusion

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Supermarket display touts "locally grown" produce. But, there is no criteria for the designation.
Supermarket display touts "locally grown" produce. But, there is no criteria for the designation.

This time of year, some Columbus grocery store signs in the produce section tout “locally grown” products like sweet corn or potatoes. But, the “locally grown” label can mean different things to retailers and consumers.

When consumers see that a product is “locally grown” they often take the label at its word. Mary Barnes of Worthington and Kyle Patrick of Columbus express what locally grown produce means to most people.

“I consider it, you know, probably a radius around Columbus maybe, I don’t know, 50, maybe a hundred miles, something like that,” says Patrick.

“Well I don’t know the technical answer. But, I would say within 50 miles that would be considered local,” adds Barnes.

Barnes says she looks for local foods to help support area growers and farmers rather than those from other states. Iowa State University food scientist Ruth MacDonald says consumer surveys show Barnes and Patrick have lots of company when they’re shopping for “locally grown” food.

“I think there is a trend for consumers to want more locally produced food,” says MacDonald.

A national consumer survey shows “locally produced” food is now an even more important consideration for shoppers than whether something is organic. Wayne County dairy farmer, Doug Billman, says he’s seen that shift in consumer attitudes first-hand.

“My experience has been if the consumer knows they can buy a dairy product from a local dairy they will go to that first because they can see it in their backyard. And I think that has a lot to do with it, what they see in their backyard,” says Billman.

And as the preference for local or backyard food grows it has prompted big retailers such as Wal-mart, Kroger, and Whole Foods to give more shelf space to “locally grown” products. Problem is, the retailers definition of “locally grown” and consumer ideas about “locally grown” are sometimes at odds.

“There is no definition of locally produced,” says McDonald.

MacDonald says that lack of criteria for locally produced food creates confusion. A display of sweet corn at an area Kroger last week defined “local” as crops that are grown within a 400 mile radius. That means the sweet corn could have been grown in central Illinois or Kentucky.

“You can find a variety of different things. Within a 100 mile radius, within a 500 mile radius, within the United States is considered local sometimes. So I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that as well and the average person doesn’t take time to think about that, that local could have come from three states over, ” says McDonald.

McDonald adds that as more consumers favor what they think is locally produced food, big chain supermarkets have begun buying from smaller growers near their individual stores.

“You know the supermarkets are not dumb. They know that people want local foods and so they’re buying from the same people that are growing and going to the farmer’s market,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald says that the increased demand for local food from big grocers drives up the price making it tougher on consumer pocketbooks whether they shop at farmer’s market or their nearest grocery store.

Add: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ruth MacDonald’s name.

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