Former Whole Foods executive blows the whistle on product label allegedly used to deceive customers: ‘Essentially a marketing gimmick’

Eating local foods might not be as green — or even as local — as we might expect.

A recent piece by The Guardian explored the alleged greenwashing tactics that the grocery industry uses to mislead customers into buying products that they advertise as “local” that aren’t actually locally produced.

Statista reported that 95% of single urban households in the United States are willing to pay extra for local food, and 96% would define local foods as being grown within 100 miles of the seller.

However, there’s no agreement among stores and retailers on what constitutes “local,” which means a great deal of “local” groceries don’t meet that 100-mile standard that Americans typically assume.

“Most of it is bulls***. Every retailer has a different definition [of ‘local’]. Even the retailers themselves will have different definitions, depending on where they are, and the original purpose of localization has totally gotten lost,” Errol Schweizer, the former leader of Whole Foods’ grocery merchandising, told The Guardian.

For example, a Whole Foods store in Oakland sells non-dairy yogurt that the store claims is local because the yogurt company is based in San Francisco. However, the main ingredient of the product, cashews, is sourced from the Ivory Coast and Vietnam, thousands of miles from the region selling the yogurt, according to The Guardian.

“‘Local’ used to be about climate change and developing strong supply chains and regional food systems. Now it’s essentially a marketing gimmick,” Schweizer said.

Another wrinkle in the local food industry is farmers’ markets. There are two major reasons why farmers’ markets aren’t as helpful as we might like to believe.

The first is that farmers’ markets only represent a tiny fraction of the overall grocery industry — about $3 billion of a $850 billion industry, according to The Guardian.

The second issue is that farmers’ markets can sometimes be deceptive in their sourcing. Amber Tamm, a farmworker and floral designer, told The Guardian that she was encouraged to advertise that the food she sold at a farmers’ market was locally produced, even though she knew it had been shipped from another area.

“They knew that this is what customers wanted to hear,” she told The Guardian.

One way to avoid being swindled by faux-local grocery retailers is to grow your own produce. There’s no reason to doubt the origin of your fruits and veggies if you pick them yourself.

We can also try to truly shop local by researching and investigating the “local” products in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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