‘Local food’ bandwagon only goes so far

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has announced that it will be initiating a study into the definition of “local” food.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has announced that it will be initiating a study into the definition of “local” food.

There’s a present labelling regulation that states that local food is defined as being sold within 50 miles of where it’s grown or within a local jurisdiction.

The CFIA believes that definition is out of date and needs to be redefined. Firstly, one wonders why an agency that’s under pressure to deal with food-safety issues and budget cutbacks suddenly has the time and money to deal with an issue that has nothing to do with food safety.

They claim it’s part of labelling legislation that needs to be updated — that’s a rather lame excuse, considering few are really affected by the rules.

Besides, labelling anything “local” is voluntary, is impossible to confirm in most cases, and the regulations are unenforceable.

One ponders then why does the CFIA need to get involved, at all. I guess it keeps some bureaucrats busy.

The word local, like organic and sustainable, has become meaningless to most, as it’s universally used without the slightest concern that it might not describe what is being sold. And since there are basically no consequences to falsely using those labels, vendors from giant grocery chains to small market gardeners, by accident or design, use such labelling to further their marketing schemes.

It gets really absurd at farmers’ markets in big cities where the assumption by gullible city folks naively assumes that everything sold is organic and local. Vendors, of course, are more than pleased to encourage that misconception.

It doesn’t seem to occur to a lot of consumers that a lot of fruit and vegetables sold at farmers’ markets can’t possibly be local because of our very short growing season and winter.

In Alberta, many vendors overcome the seasonal production concern by claiming their fresh produce comes from B.C., which seems to presume they have a year-round growing season over there.

It’s all bogus, of course — most consumers wouldn’t know a B.C. apple from one from California, nor would they know a B.C. strawberry from one from Mexico. A vendor’s old trick is to pile empty fruit boxes with B.C. labels in full sight of passing consumers.

Some vendors have resorted to certificates atoning to where certain produce comes from — that’s done with Taber corn for instance.

But again, there’s no way of knowing, being there is no realistic scientific test that can confirm the origin of where a peach is grown. It’s all part of the trust that naïve consumers want to have in the process.

In the recent CFIA study announcement, it was stated that in the interim, local would also be defined as anything produced within the province. That blows the 50-mile rule out of the water, of course.

To be fair, that rule has always discriminated against large provinces with a spread-out ag industry.

Are vegetables grown by a Hutterite Colony 150 miles away any worse than vegetables grown by local hobbyist a few miles out of town. But it opens a can of worms — where do you draw the line.

In a province that’s 1,000 miles long, that makes vegetables from Oregon as local as vegetables from the Peace River district.

But there’s more to the local story and it’s mostly ideological and it bears a resemblance to what happened to the “organic label.”

There was a time when organic produce was considered to be grown by local small farmers using basic production methods. They were different from the crops produced by giant multi-national corporations in California — the so-called nefarious agribusiness.

Supporting the small grower was deemed to be striking a blow against those giant capitalist corporate interests. It was assumed that those giant corporate farmers would never be able to grow their crops without chemicals.

How wrong that was — those same interests co-opted the organic movement by hijacking the certification process. Now, so-called organic crops and food are all grown by giant corporate operations or imported from China.

Having lost the organic battle, ideologues saw “local” labelling as another way to strike back at evil big agri-business. That works to a point and during certain times of the year, at least here in Alberta.

I suspect more growers and retailers wanted to get on the “local label” bandwagon and want the label redefined for their own marketing purposes. The problem is that will make the label less exclusive, and much more competitive. In the end, that will put it in the same boat as an organic label — that’s fairly meaningless. One wonders what is next.

— Ahead of the Heard

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