And What You Need To Consider

Recently, I had the pleasure of dining at a restaurant which emphasized only serving locally grown fruits and vegetables, and organic grass-fed meat. At first I thought, “What a cool concept,” and found it encouraging that my food was locally grown within the community and supporting local farmers. But it quickly occurred to me that I was in a city, and as far as I could see there were no farms nestled among the skyscrapers. So, what exactly does it mean to be locally grown? “Local” in general seems to be a vague term, which is exactly the case when it comes to describing the food we eat. The ambiguity of food terms is abundant, and this experience begged me to get to the bottom of what these so-called buzzwords really mean.
1. Local

“Local” isn’t officially defined or monitored; the interpretation could be dictated by the distance to market, state or city border. Locally grown refers to food and other agricultural products that are grown or produced, processed and then sold within a certain area. A restaurant can say that it is proud to serve locally grown vegetables, but those vegetables could be shipped over from another state miles and miles away.
Along the same lines, the word “locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2007. A locavore is a person interested in eating food that is locally produced, not moved long distances to market. A locavore’s primary interest is sustainability, and many believe that farm-to-table can be classified as local under the right conditions. This means as long as the peaches you are eating come from “Farmer Joe’s Independent Farm,” they could conceivably come from hundreds of miles away. While there is clearly a movement among customers to consume these types of foods, purchasers, producers, wholesalers and retailers in the industry all have differing definitions of the term local and regulatory agencies have done little to provide guidance.

2. Organic

Like Many, I shop at Trader Joe’s and thought I knew what it meant when packaging states organic. organic. The USDA National Organic Program definition of organic is: “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.” The USDA’s National Organic Program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced. According to the USDA, to obtain a certificate of 100% organic, raw or processed agricultural products, the product must meet the following criteria: 1) all ingredients must be certified organic; 2) the processing aids must be organic; 3) and the product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel. The catch here is that products can be labeled organic, which limits criteria according to the National Organic Program. All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic except where specified on the national list. This means that up to a combined total of five percent of nonorganic ingredients can be used. The organic ingredients must be identified via asterisk or mark to distinguish from the nonorganic ingredients. Locally grown food has a significant connection to organics. Many farms and products claim to be organic, some certified, some not. The debate continues: which is better certified, organic food or local food? Fortunately for consumers, organic is much more clearly defined by the USDA. Unfortunately for producers, achieving organic certification requires burdensome regulatory paperwork and significant expense. The million dollar question for them is whether or not it’s worth it.
3. Kosher

According to The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2013 Report, one of the most talked about buzzwords being touted in the business is “kosher.” Kosher products are in very high demand in the U.S., particularly in the Northeast. Kosher signifies food is fit and prepared according to the guidelines of the Jewish faith. Kosher is more than a dietary mandate for practicing Jews; 55 percent of kosher consumers buy these particular items because they believe they are healthier. Many chains require all products to be kosher, and some stores advertise their kosher status as a positive marketing tool. According to the Food Marketing Institute, 60 percent of the products on grocery shelves bear some sort of certification and these account for $150 billion in sales annually.
Furthermore, 3,000 new kosher products are introduced every year, showcasing a rapidly growing market. So, what does it mean to be certified? Kosher Supervision of America (KSA) and Orthodox Union (OU) are the most popular, but there are over 400 kosher certifiers worldwide and the products must be certified kosher in the facilities they are produced. The most common symbol of certification is the “OU” symbol on food packaging. This means that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America has monitored the food development process and approved the food kosher. The “OU” symbol means the food is “pareve,” meaning it contains no meat or dairy products. “OU-D” means it contains dairy and “OU-P” means the food is kosher all year including Passover. However, symbols and abbreviations vary with the certification union. A major issue with kosher certification is the different bodies don’t always recognize the kosher certification from one organization to another. With this in mind, B2B buyers and consumers may or may not accept the certification of certain products. With the increasing number of consumers who perceive kosher foods to be healthier and better made, kosher certification gives products a competitive edge in the marketplace.

4. Clean and All-Natural

These largely interchangeable terms are used to define foods that are minimally processed and do not contain manufactured additives. “As an ingredient company, one of our greatest challenges is to push “clean” labels,” said PreGel Key Accounts Specialist Sandy Courtney. “Consumers are seeking less-processed foods and look for shorter ingredient lists. When a customer needs a “clean label” I always offer options in our catalog that do not contain colorants or other additives. To maintain a competitive cost advantage, a customer may choose to offset the higher costs of organic or ‘all-natural and clean’ products by offering just one or two of these amongst the usual offering.”
“All-natural and clean” are two of the most frequently used buzzwords in the food industry. The catch is that “all-natural and clean” are not regulated by the FDA or USDA, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is “natural” because food in the U.S. is generally processed in some way. Almost everything we consume has been altered mechanically, chemically, or by temperature. The FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. Despite the term’s widespread use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discourages the food industry from using “natural” on labels because of its ambiguity.
“Natural may unjustifiably imply that a food is of superior quality or safety compared to other similar foods,” said the FDA’s Ritu Nalubola. The department judges products on a case-by-case basis. For a product to be called “natural,” it must be free of artificial or synthetic ingredients or additives, including color, flavor or any ingredient not normally expected.
While it’s apparent that the use of these industry buzzwords carry a great deal of cachet with consumers and can provide a significant marketing edge to producers, many questions remain with their usage. Manufacturers and retailers need to weigh their desire to be candid with their customers against the desire to tap new markets and increase sales with these keywords. Inclusion of these terms can be an ethical, legal and costly minefield, but a successful navigation can be quite lucrative.