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We need to be sure when we label our food ‘local'

04 March 2011 by
We need to be sure when we label our food ‘local'

If, once upon a time, consumers were impressed by food originating from far-flung corners of the globe, these days it's all about being local. Talk to chefs and many will tell you with great pride and enthusiasm about the fine produce from just down the road that ends up on their plates.

This isn't born out of some wishy-washy tree-hugging sentimentality; it makes good commercial sense.

A 2005 report by market research firm IGD found that 70% of consumers wanted to buy "local food", with nearly 50% keen to purchase more in the future. With that in mind, it was always likely that one or two operators would decide to play a little fast and loose with the truth.

Sadly, this week's survey by Local Government Regulation shows it was rather more than one or two. It was actually one in five. And some of the claims, leaving aside the mind-boggling economics that made them possible, were fairly outrageous.

Mistaking New Zealand lamb for Welsh lamb might be understandable if it came from a Welsh butcher who wasn't clear about the provenance of the meat he sold. Less easy to justify was the West Country fish that was filleted in China before returning to a West Country table, or "fresh local cream" that was a cream substitute made from vegetable oil.

The findings highlight just how easy it is for disreputable or ill-informed businesses to make claims the responsible majority would never dream of making. There is no legal definition of "local" in food labelling legislation, nor do we necessarily need to go so far as to create one. But perhaps it is time for clear guidance on what is acceptable.

Accurate information on provenance matters, and it will harm the entire industry if an unscrupulous few get away with pulling the New Zealand wool over consumers' eyes.

By Neil Gerrard

E-mail your comments to Neil Gerrard here.

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