Local food means anything; safe food means no barfing

Sorenne and I started some seeds a few weeks ago (right, exactly as shown), and promptly brought them in during a cold snap, but spring seems to have sprung.

We do OK with the herbs and berries, greens, tomatoes, beans and peas. But I wouldn’t depend on the yields.

Food from my yard is local, but I still take care to control microbial food safety risks (see the 2009 video, below).

Associated Press reports the No. 2 official at the U.S. Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.

But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

"It’s a sales gimmick," says Allen Swann, a Maryland farmer who became frustrated when he realized a nearby grocery chain was selling peaches and corn from New York and New Jersey as local produce. "They are using the word local because of the economic advantage of using the word local."

Vermont defines "local" as grown within the state or within 30 miles of where it is sold. Massachusetts has similar restrictions for the word "native." And numerous other states have made it easier for local farmers to advertise that their food was produced in-state.

Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.

Whatever local means, and whether it’s better or not, I’ll have fun puttering with my family and make sure it’s safe.