Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: August-September 2013

August 14, 2013
By Stephanie Ortenzi

The new definition of local food is a game-changer

The new definition of local food is a game-changer

It was timely and untimely at the same time. As I sat down to write this column about the new national definition of local food, a beloved Toronto food shop devoted to local food announced “with a heavy heart,” that it needed to close its doors for the last time. In a touching farewell, Culinarium’s proprietor Kathleen Mackintosh transparently described what drove that final nail into her livelihood: “We simply don’t serve a critical mass large enough to be economically sustainable.”

That “critical mass” is the sweet spot to be serving regardless of your interest in local food. But if your business is driven by local food, if you want to increase your use of local products, or if you want to start making local food part of your business because you’re noticing that your customers care about it, a recent announcement by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is valuable news for you.


The CFIA has declared that food can be considered local if it’s grown, raised or produced within the province or territory, including 50 km beyond the border. That’s a huge change from what was established in 1998. Under the old scheme, food was considered local if it was produced within 50 km of where it was sold, or in the same or an adjacent municipality.

There’s always been a bit of wiggle room on local food, but this new definition is game-changing. A quick look across the country will show just how much the game is going to change and shift the focus to provincial economies.

In the west, Vancouver Sun blogger Randy Shore writes: “[Under the old definition] Chilliwack corn could not be sold as local in Vancouver. Beets from Burnaby qualified, but not raspberries from Abbostford.” With the new definition, all these products can be considered local, including kale from Canmore and blueberries from Jasper. In Alberta, beef raised in Lethbridge will be local in Grand Prairie, 960 km away. In Ontario, peaches gown in Niagara will be considered local in Thunder Bay, 1500 km away. And despite the previous definition of local food, Eat Local Sudbury, a food co-operative, has been selling food produced within a 250 km radius because it’s often not possible to find locally grown food any closer.

Pre-empting the CFIA’s announcement by about a week, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois announced her food sovereignty position: “Quebec foods will be raised to the level of jewels of our economy.” (I bet that sounds even lovelier in French.) Her statement was made in support of an election promise to make 50 per cent of the food on every Quebecker’s plate produced or grown in that province.

In the east, according to a CBC report from Fredericton, food retailer Levi Lawrence says that 95 per cent of his inventory is grown or raised in southern New Brunswick. One product in particular does a brilliant job of showing what’s wrong with a local definition. He stocks a tofu made in Nova Scotia that uses certified organic soy beans from P.E.I. Since there are no similar products in New Brunswick, Lawrence believes this is the most local and sustainable tofu made in the area, which might be why it’s easy for the even staunchest purist to let him off the hook, especially since he posts a regional map in his store showing the location of each of his suppliers.

Geography in food labelling is an idea both sides of the debate can get behind. Naming the municipality, city, town, region or province where the food comes from can make local seem irrelevant. Why be vague if you can be specific? Naming the farmer, producer or artisan responsible for that food has become the gold standard in labelling. Giving credit where credit is due always looks good on you, and you can’t get more accountable or transparent than that.

For greater perspective on this issue, it’s important to be aware that the local definition is part of a larger program to modernize food labelling generally because, says the CFIA, increased media attention on food has made consumers more aware and has increased their expectations. Watch for updates over the next 18 months.

For a scale-based way to think about the new definition of local, it’s important to know that many provincial governments have mandated that their public institutions buy local. If your business is scalable, local can mean opportunity.

For an overarching way to think about local food in terms of how it impacts your business, it’s important to see that local is a labelling issue, and labelling is a marketing issue. Labelling of whatever sort – contents, nutritional data, provenance of ingredients – is fodder for your marketing, and if it isn’t, it should be. Does your flour have a story to tell? Where does your butter come from? Your eggs? Learning about a food’s provenance has a very positive emotional impact. Marketing exists at the crossroads of information and emotion. You want to be there.

Stephanie Ortenzi ( ) is a Toronto-based food marketing writer.

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