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Clearing up the confusion over 'local' food in Maryland

May 9, 2011 - 06:00 AM
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No longer can unscrupulous farmers market their veggies in Maryland as "from your backyard" if they are not indeed from a backyard in Maryland.

Eager to capitalize on the popularity of the local food movement, some food retailers have been a bit creative with their definition of the word "local." Much like the word "natural" on food labeling, "local" is not regulated, leaving vendors to slap the word on apples from three states away.

Complaints from Maryland consumers and farmers led the state legislature to pass a bill requiring businesses that advertise raw meat, eggs, fish, produce, and dairy products as local to have signage indicating where it comes from. The Maryland Dept. of Agriculture says the measure is set to go into effect June 27.

Any of these products claiming to be local, locally grown, regionally grown, or otherwise implying a nearby place of origin (including "from your backyard!") must be accompanied by legible signage stating which state the product is from. Businesses under the law include grocery stores, farmers markets, farm-stands, and restaurants. 

Mark Powell of the department's marketing division says retailers initially resisted the legislation but in the end got on board. There was debate over how to define "local," with some advocating Maryland-only products getting the label and others suggesting the product had to be from a 150-mile radius from the place of sale. In the end, the department decided to simply label the state of origin and let customers decide if it was local enough for them.

Enforcement of the new regulations could be tricky, as they'll rely on consumers to ferret out violations and report them to the department.

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