The meaning of local

We have always known what “local” means.

August 15, 2013 | | Departments | Editor’s Desk | FOOD Autumn - Winter 2013 | In Every Issue

We at Food In The Hills have been waving the local food banner for about three years now, and in that time the idea of consuming food grown and produced in our metaphorical backyard has expanded from the mantra of a few committed foodies into conventional wisdom embraced by farmers and politicians alike.

But while we, the local consumers, have been reaping the benefits of neighbourhood farmers’ markets and seasonally focused restaurant menus, the bureaucrats have been playing catch up, and a quiet but fervent debate has been taking place over what exactly we mean by the term “local food.”

It all started when Jay Klausen, chef/owner of Bistro Burger in Alliston, received a registered letter from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last April. The CFIA was responding to a complaint that Klausen’s menu described his beef burgers as “locally” and “naturally” raised when the meat was sourced about 160 kilometres away in southwestern Ontario. The agency gave Klausen 10 days to change his menu or face a fine as high as $50,000.

Klausen, who is committed to using food produced nearby, including trout from Manitoulin Island, potatoes from Shelburne and flour milled in Schomberg, buys the beef for his burgers from Field Gate Organics, a federally inspected organic farm in Zurich, Ontario.

But the CFIA defined “local” as originating within 50 kilometres or within the same local government unit or adjacent government unit (i.e. municipality). As well, the agency defined “natural” as food “produced through the ordinary course of nature without the interference or influence of humans,” a restriction that pretty much excluded all farmed or cultivated food products.

Meanwhile, as Klausen was taking his case for unfair persecution to the media, the Ontario government had already retabled Bill 130, The Local Food Act. It defined “local” as any food grown in Ontario.

Then in May the CFIA revised its definition. Now it says “local food” is food grown within your province or 50 kilometres beyond provincial boundaries. So that, apparently, is that. And Jay Klausen is off the hook. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. What if your product, say chocolate chip cookies, contains local flour, butter and eggs but the chocolate, vanilla and sugar come from Mexico? Can it be labelled “local”? And the agency’s definition of “natural,” a descriptor that these days is loosely attached to everything from granola bars to frozen yogurt, remains ludicrously archaic. All of this is confusing for consumers and producers alike. The good news is that “local food” is an idea whose time has come.

For us at Food In The Hills, there is no confusion. “Local” has always meant food grown, processed or prepared here in the Headwaters region. It is our mandate to promote and celebrate the region’s purveyors and producers of good food. We have always known what “local” means. Now it’s up to the policymakers to get it straight.

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