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Tackling the Global Controversy Over Local Foods

Tackling the Global Controversy Over Local Foods

Despite good intentions, the local foods movement is under more scrutiny these days.

It's nice to think we could create a new era of distribution managed by such concepts as food miles and carbon footprints. But once you travel down that road for a while, you run into all sorts of gridlock.

Those challenges were outlined this month during the Healthy Foods International Expo and Conference in Dallas, sponsored by SN and New Hope Natural Media, both units of Penton Media.

One of the biggest challenges with local foods is creating a common definition. Take the case of United Kingdom, where consumers are increasingly clamoring for local products. Some U.K. retailers, such as Waitrose, define local as within a 30-mile radius of a store, noted Bryan Roberts, global research director for Planet Retail, a speaker at the HFI event. Yet American retailer Whole Foods, which also operates in that part of the world, defines local as sourced from anywhere within the U.K., Roberts added.

The difference in definitions stems from the relative sizes of countries of operation: “You can fit three United Kingdoms in Texas,” Roberts noted, a reference to Texas-based Whole Foods.

Confusion over definitions isn't the only problem with the concept of local. Consumers have become accustomed to a level of variety and convenience that could never be satisfied by local products alone. That is particularly the case with specialty foods, noted Michael Girkout, the longtime president of Alvarado Street Bakery, Petaluma, Calif., a distributor of organic whole-grain breads and bagels.

Much of Alvarado's ingredients can only be sourced from a distance. And the customer base for its products, which range from sprouted-wheat bagels to low-glycemic breads, is global, because these items aren't available in most locales. “Food does travel; we can't all eat local,” Girkout said.

Another roadblock to the local concept is the growing consumer taste for foods of the world. “The consumer demand for global cuisines has forced the year-round availability issue,” said Robert Verloop, vice president of marketing, Naturipe Farms, Salinas, Calif.

So what is the best road map to balancing the demand for local with the realities of our far-flung distribution system? Author Samuel Fromatz, an expert on the natural and organics industry, provided an important perspective for HFI attendees.

He noted that local may eventually overtake organic in terms of importance, but he conceded that the consumer will not live by local alone. He took a stab at forming a definition for the local concept: “The attempt to define it by mileage is counterproductive,” he said, noting that a frequently used benchmark of up to 150 miles distance is too restrictive. “I would encourage people to buy within their regions,” he said, referring to the concept of “regional food systems.” Fromatz's comments help clear up some of the confusion around the topic, but the controversy will remain.

It may be true that all politics is local, but with food, it's not that simple.