As consumers and producers alike debate the question “What is local?” one state is taking steps to help its citizens make that decision for themselves. The Maryland Department of Agriculture recently proposed rules to regulate the usage of the word “local” in food advertising. The regulations come as part of a law seeking to bring clarity to consumers as to what constitutes local, which was signed by Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley in 2010.
“With the increased interest in buying local and the current lack of agreement on defining local, we feel it is paramount that consumers have the information they need to make informed decisions about their food purchases,” says Buddy Hance, Maryland’s agriculture secretary. “If advertising a food product as ‘local,’ the proposed regulations will require businesses to disclose the origin of their product and consumers can make their own determination if a food advertised as ‘local’ meets their standard.”
A task force of farmers, retail representatives, consumer advocates and other interested stakeholders provided input for the proposal. The regulations will guide the use of the terms “local” or “locally grown” when used to advertise agricultural and seafood products. According to the MDA, the regulations aim to support Maryland’s farmers and provide transparency to consumers interested in purchasing local foods by informing Marylanders about their local-foods purchases.
Partakers in Maryland’s local-food movement agree that the proposal to help clarify the use of “local” or “locally grown” will benefit Maryland’s producers and farmers.
“There are countless examples of how this term is both misconstrued and falsely used. Not to mention, if guidelines are put into place, regional specialties can gain a better foothold in their respective markets,” says Andy Tzortzinis, president of Slow Food Baltimore, Maryland’s chapter of the international organization that promotes the preservation of local food traditions. “Look in the case of European wine appellations or regional cheese types—these are regulated products that benefit from that regulation and these products are recognized and revered both locally and abroad because of where they come from. The consumer is aware that the place has something to do with the character of the product.”
In recent years, interest in locally produced foods has surged in Maryland, leading to the rapid growth of farmers’ markets and the appearance of Maryland products in restaurants and grocery stores. The 2010 Policy Choices Survey by the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy found that 78 percent of Marylanders are more likely to buy produce that is identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer.
However, how Maryland regulates the use of the terms “local” and “locally grown” could get tricky, says Tzortzinis. Small-scale producers on a budget may perceive extra costs and labor tacked onto such regulations, and there could be a push-back from larger grocery chains who are already misusing the terms.
“If someone in the Maryland state government were to ask, I would actually suggest that if there were ever to be some sort of farming or local producer subsidy, it should subsidize packaging,” he says. “In doing so, labeling could be clear and consistent, better sanitation practices could be enforced, and it would improve the state’s monitoring of locally produced products, their sale and the guidelines they have created.”
Marylanders interested in commenting on the proposed ruling can read the full proposal in the Dec. 17, 2010 edition of the Maryland Register, a publication provided by the State of Maryland. Comments may be sent by mail to Mark Powell, Chief of Marketing, Maryland Department of Agriculture, 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401; by email to PowellMS@mda.state.md.us; or by fax to 410-841-5957. Comments will be accepted through Jan. 18, 2011. A public hearing on the proposal has not been