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So What the Heck Does 'Local' Mean Anyway?

As local food is my theme for this week, I thought I should make at least a half-hearted attempt to explain what the term means. The answer is: it's thoroughly open to interpretation.

Some say that to be "local," food has to be grown within a hundred miles of where its sold. Others put the bar higher (or closer), while others count anything within a day's drive. Wal-Mart calls products local if they're grown in the same state, even if that state is massive like Texas.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who expect "local" food products to be all sorts of additional things, such as pesticide-free, sustainably grown, from a small farm, free of salmonella, etc. -- despite the fact that these are separate issues in no way contained in or implied by the word "local."

Smarter critics, in my opinion, are those who don't try to redefine the term but instead simply point out that local doesn't necessarily mean safer, healthier or even better for the environment (which is a topic I will tackle soon).

Anyway, in the absence of a rigid, agreed-upon standard, companies are free to be flexible with how they define the term. Here's are some of the definitions I was able to round up.

As for consumers, people are all over the board, in both their definitions and their reasons for eating local in the first place. One study found that 100 miles is the most common definition -- but even there, the issue is not completely resolved. Does that mean anything within a hundred-mile radius, or only what can be reached by driving on 100 miles worth of roads?

Finally, there's always the chance of outright fraud. No one's regulating what gets labelled as "local." I also found mention of one case in which a "local" product was genuinely grown near the store where it was sold, but in the meantime, it was shipped elsewhere for washing and packing. Technically that's still local, but it kind of defeats the purpose.
Related stories on BNET Food: Frito-Lay Embraces Local Movement, But Movement Does Not Embrace Frito-Lay At Chipotle, Local is More Than Just Talk

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