Locally Sourced and Organic…"*Where You Can!"

I had an interesting discussion with an expert in the food industry, and we discussed some of the emerging trends going on in food packaging and local sourcing for food.  It turns out that consumers are now getting very picky about where and how their food was grown, and what they are ingesting into their bodies.  Imagine that!

The food expert I spoke with noted that many of the food packaging companies are beginning to add the term Locally Sourced and Organic. However, many of these same packages show a very, very, small asterisk – with the words “where we can” at the bottom.

This has led to a whole lot of confusion. A report by the National Restaurant Association notes that “While chains explore local and organic and develop updated supply chains, questions remain over which is more cost effective, which is more sensible, and which customers prefer.Although both local and organic fall under the now-umbrella term “green,” the two sourcing strategies are different. Organic food is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and concerns how the food is grown and processed.”  Organic also implies that it they are not Genetically Modified Organisms – which is another ball of was entirely.  The problem is  – most companies can “source” non-GMO, organic food, but in reality, are unable to distinguish the upstream separation of non-GMO from mainstream food, particularly for corn and other broad categories, so in reality, it is all blended together in the upstream supply chain!  Hence the term *where we can…

The term “local” is also highly variable – and this can mean within a 150 mile radius, or if you are shopping at the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market, a 25 mile radius. (In fact, I heard rumors that the guy who started the CHFM was kicked out for bringing in vegetables that were from outside the radius! Shame Shame!)

People also sometimes think that locally grown is the same as organic.  In fact, local producers often falsely tack on the term “organic” to nonorganic food items because it is a buzzword. With the shaky definition of what constitutes local ingredients, comparing them with organic ingredients can be impossible. But one thing is for sure: Organic ingredients are more expensive than other ingredients.

The NRA report notes that “According to the USDA, the average premium for organic ingredients is as much as 100 percent for vegetables, 200 percent for chicken, and 300 percent for eggs.”

The other problem is that some communities only have a two week growing period – so it is virtually impossible to grow local food for sale year round.  One of our MBA student teams this summer is exploring the possibilities for “flash freezing” locally grown produce, and exploring the market demand for this type of produce in supermarkets.  This work is being done in conjunction with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS).  The results should be very interesting!

There are also huge risks associated with local foods.  Consider the Chipotle case.  The first problem, norovirus, is notoriously contagious, and involved employees coming to work sick and rendering the entire facility  breeding ground for germs.   But the other issues related to food safety and handling that resulted in the E.coli and salmonella outbreaks were primarily due to poor material handling procedures.  Nevertheless, Chipotle has suffered dearly for these issues, and the lines at their stores are nowhere near as long as what they used to be!

Local food faces an uphill battle in other ways.  People want perfect round peppers and tomatoes – so a lot of the “ugly vegetables” get rejected on the incoming dock, even though they taste way better than the stuff that looks perfect in many cases.  There was even a recent Shark Tank episode where a guy was selling the non-perfect stuff to people in shipments.

But one of the biggest challenges of all is supply.  Local farmers don’t have the production volume, the scale, and the expertise to produce in mass quantities.  So in the meantime, local food sourcing will remain a challenge – but the work of CEFS and our students will hopefully try to change that.