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globe editorial

Customers shop for vegetables in the Fiore Farms booth at the Vancouver Winter Farmer's Market at Nat Bailey Stadium on Jan. 27, 2013.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

An unexpected and poorly explained change of federal policy that means a blueberry grown in Thunder Bay, Ont., can now be sold as a "local" product 1,500 kilometres away in Cornwall, Ont., is doomed to cause confusion. Just as a trend toward purchasing locally sourced produce and meats has taken off in this country, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has thrown a wrench into consumers' understanding of what "local" means.

As of May, the CFIA has been allowing food producers to label as "local" anything that is produced in the province or territory where it is sold, as well as "food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory."

Under the old definition, food had to originate within a 50-kilometre radius from where it was sold to qualify as "local." The CFIA argues this dramatic change was required because the old system was "outdated and does not reflect current food production practices or consumer needs and expectations."

It's true that the 50-kilometre rule was outdated. Even the most ardent locavore would accept that the radius needed to be expanded; the so-called "100-mile diet" explicitly means that food produced 160 kilometres from where it is sold should be considered "local."

But under the new rule, an apple grown in Vernon, B.C., can be sold as a "local" apple in downtown Vancouver. A consumer in Vancouver might feel misled to discover a "local" apple travelled 440 kilometres to get there. And if it's a "local" apple in Vancouver, what will they call it in Vernon?

The CFIA says the change is an interim policy put into effect while the federal agency undertakes a review of its food-labelling rules. Fair enough. But it's not often you see a government agency unilaterally change the definition of a well-understood English word. The CFIA could have far more sensibly expanded the radius from 50 kilometres to 250 or even 300 kilometres and left it at that. As it currently stands, many Canadians may unknowingly purchase "local" foods that don't meet their definition of the term.

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