WASHINGTON — The No. 2 official at the 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, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that read they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.
The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word "local" in food marketing. It's the latest big thing after the surge in food marketed as "organic," another subject of continuing labeling controversy.
But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.
A federal definition is unlikely because of the diversity of crops and growing regions around the country. A set distance or definition that works for one state or one crop may not make sense for others. But some states have taken a crack at it.
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.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has found that there is no generally accepted definition of local food. With few regulations, retailers have different standards.
The Agriculture Department says consumer preferences for locally grown food can mean more jobs and profits for local farmers and higher produce sales in stores. It estimates locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year, up from $5 billion in 2007.