Ontario Agriculture

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We’ve all been bamboozled by false claims of one kind or another. Terms like “Real”, “Natural”, “Approved” – even “Free” don’t always hold true when you take a closer look under the covers. Well, now you can add “Local” to the growing list of trendy yet questionable marketing terms.

It appears that marketers drank the Kool-Aid and are cashing in on the social trend to shop, eat, buy and support local and there’s nothing wrong with that, provided that the goods or services promoted live up to their local claims. But how do you really know that bunch of broccoli really is local? More often than not, the consumer is left with the job of discerning the fake from the authenticate as seen in this tongue-in-cheek skit from the show Portlandia.

No group is more baffled by the misuse and overuse of the term local than our local food producers. Perhaps I’m more tuned in lately but it seems like every conversation we have with local producers or chefs lands on the topic of “local washing”. It is a source of growing frustration amongst this group of professionals.

In a post that appeared on Grist, there’s a series of great examples of local washing including a recent marketing campaign that Hellmann’s ran in the Canadian market. In this do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do campaign, they asked us to take a close look at how far our food travels – just not their mayo. Hellmann’s is a subsidiary of the U.S. based giant Unilever. Furthermore, if you’ve ever taken the time to read the ingredients list on a jar of their mayonnaise you will note that there is absolutely nothing local about the product.

Hellmann’s Eat Local Campaign Ad

As public awareness around the benefits of eating local grows so will the demand for locally grown and grazed foods. Many reputable retailers and restaurants go to incredible lengths to source products and ingredients from their own communities. However, their dubious counterparts bypass local producers, just not the local message. They see the consumer’s appetite for fresh and local only as a marketing opportunity, too good to pass up. They use misleading, sometimes false claims about the geographic origin of their suppliers winning over even the most savvy customers.

To my knowledge, a false claim of locality in advertising has not been successfully challenged under the provisions of the Competitions Act which addresses deceptive marketing practises (if I am wrong, please correct me) but the growing nature of the problem would indicate it is only a matter of time.

To combat the local washing problem and bring more transparency to the local food supply, programs like MyPick in Ontario and some initiatives undertaken by our regional food associations do verify the authenticity of local growers and/or sellers but without an aggressive public education campaign and widespread adoption from all the stakeholders in the local food ecosystem, consumers will continue to take a leap of faith when purchasing products that carry a claim of local.

This issue of transparency is one that our platform, ei•ei•eat, is tackling head on in the first version of our app scheduled for release in August 2014. We give businesses with a stake in local food – producers, markets, restaurants and retailers – the ability to connect with each other and display these connections so buyers using our app can verify first-hand that the honey they just purchased at a farmer’s market really did come from a local producer and the steak that they want to order once grazed 10 minutes up the road.

And we didn’t stop there. The application provides food producers with an easy way to imbed product codes on their labels so buyers can verify a product’s origin by scanning it with their smartphone. We also feel it is imperative to support existing verification and certification programs so growers, restaurants, etc. that have taken the steps to meet certain standards and practises may promote this within their ei•ei•eat profile.

A trip to your local farmer’s market should be a gratifying experience, not a crap shoot. The key to combatting local washing is quite simple. Let the market correct itself by giving consumers accessible, accurate information about their local food supply so they can connect the dots between producer and seller, distinguish real from fake and assert their buying power where it belongs – with businesses that leverage truth not tactics to market their products.

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