When packaged foods are ubiquitous and orange juice is a blend of concentrates from China, the United States and Brazil, it can be difficult to remember that our food comes from a specific place, raised by people who have a story of their own. But there are good reasons for emphasizing our foods' origins. Being aware of authentic regional flavors and products can reinvigorate local farm economies, protect rare breeds and heirloom strains for the genetic diversity of the future, and ensure that food traditions don't die out.
By being aware of and promoting the geography of taste, retailers can introduce customers to new flavors and a deeper sense of connection to the food they purchase. The most comprehensive effort to establish place-based food labeling thus far occurs in the European Union, which has several designations for local foods and beverages. Efforts are under way in this country to establish similar labeling conventions, through a program called European Authentic Tastes.
"When the EU established the system in 1992, it was modeled after the wine systems in France and Italy, which designate quality regional products," says Ann Connors, EAT program project manager, based in New York City. "The EU felt the program had value for producers, in protecting sustainable agriculture and gastronomic traditions, and offered consumers insight into the genuine nature of the product so they'd know they were getting the genuine article." The system also protects products from name misuse or misrepresentation. Thus far, more than 700 products have received a designation, with many more in the pipeline.
The most stringent level of EU certification, Protected Designation of Origin, requires that the raw materials, production and processing for an item all take place within a specific region, using traditional methods. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto de Parma ham are probably the best-known examples, though there are many meats, cheeses, beers and other products with a PDO designation. "These products are reflective of place in the true sense of the French word terroir," Connors says.
The next level is Protected Geographical Indication. For PGI designation, not all raw materials or production are required to take place locally, though the food must still represent traditional regional methods. Examples include Kalamata olives from Greece and Styrian pumpkin seed oil from Austria.
The final designation is Traditional Specialty Guaranteed. Though not linked to a specific town or region, these products must follow traditional production methods. Examples include Serrano ham from Spain and Kriek beer from Belgium.
These designations can have a remarkable effect on local economies. For example, in the case of Styrian pumpkin seed oil, production has increased almost 25 percent per year since the designation was granted. Though many products use ancient techniques, others are new, including riz rouge de camargue, a French red rice that was discovered only 20 years ago. And, though the program is run by the European Union with enforcement limited to EU countries, American place-based products such as Vermont maple syrup or Vidalia onions could go through the certification process and receive an EU product designation.
The EAT program offers a kit for retailers explaining the various designations, which can be downloaded or ordered through the EAT Web site, www.eu-authentic-tastes.com.
In the United States, the movement toward recognizing—let alone regulating—place-based foods and regional traditions is still in its infancy, though a number of groups are beginning to focus on the issue. One such program is RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions), a joint program of Slow Food USA and other groups, including Chefs Collaborative and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. At this point, the program is primarily engaged in identifying endangered varieties and regional production methods.
"We're organizing farmers to start collectives, which may move in the direction of a label or brand for regional foods or a set of production guidelines that maintain the integrity of the foods," says Makalé Faber, project coordinator for Slow Food USA. "Our raw-milk cheese producers, for example, are very interested in creating a brand identity, and have developed strict guidelines for cheese production and treatment of animals."
Faber says that often, consumers see the abundance in grocery stores and don't realize how many foods are endangered and how few varieties of meats, fruits and vegetables are currently in production. Factory farming, in conjunction with the vast distances most foods travel to market, has led to foods being chosen by producers for reasons other than taste or diversity—for example, how well a particular tomato ships, or whether a poultry breed can survive indoors in close quarters.
By offering regional and endangered food products, retailers can support local agriculture and biodiversity. "These foods need to be made accessible," Faber says. "Retailers can help by setting up a section of the store that highlights regional foods, and use taste tests to help customers explore new flavors." The Slow Foods Web site, www.slowfoodsusa.org, lists endangered foods by region, and can help retailers identify foods native to their area.
Heritage Foods USA, based in New York City, specializes in heirloom breeds of meat, particularly pork and turkey. "Heritage Foods was founded to preserve the genetics lost in our meat supply and offer these products direct to consumers, as well as wholesale to chefs and retailers," says Sarah Obraitis, vice president of sales. Many of these breeds, she says, were pushed out of the food chain because they didn't conform to the needs of industrialized agriculture. "They came to market weight more slowly, or didn't live well indoors, or offered unique shapes and intense flavors," she says.
All Heritage Foods products include a gold sticker with the farm name and a traceability number, so consumers and retailers can go to the Web site (www.heritagefarmsusa.com) and learn about the farmer, the animal's feed and living conditions, and farm protocols—and even call the farmer and speak to him or her directly. All Heritage Foods meats share certain traits, including antibiotic-free production and outdoor—rather than barn-living—conditions. Rare breeds like Berkshire pork offer consumers a completely different flavor profile than factory-farmed meats, Obraitis says.
"We've done some work looking at the potential for place-based foods here in the U.S.," says Rich Pirog, marketing and food systems program leader at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. "So far, in this country we're really just scratching the surface because the food industry doesn't recognize place as being critical. We have what I call 'place-based food light,' such as labels for Florida orange juice or Idaho potatoes, but the food industry tends to treat products like a mineral that you mine and then add value to later."
By focusing on a sense of place, Leopold says, we can reclaim the stories that go hand in hand with our foods, and begin to protect rural economies. For example, in Iowa there is a type of melon, which is known for its flavor, produced in the area of Muscatine. Local growers realized that farmers outside the region were using the words Muscatine melon, and have pursued a certification mark for their product.
For retailers, the biggest hurdle to selling regional and place-based foods may be educational. Shoppers first have to know that such foods exist and, second, that they differ from their mainstream counterparts in terms of taste and production methods. One way to begin this education is to tap into existing marketplace trends.
"For example, baby boomers are a huge demographic with a lot of buying power, and they're often looking for nostalgic products—retro comfort foods, things that strike them as homemade or remind them of foods they had on the farm as a child," says Kara Nielsen, trend analysis manager at the Center for Culinary Development, based in San Francisco. "They've also tasted authentic flavors at the source, whether in Italy or Spain or Asia, and want to bring those tastes home."
By using signs, tastings and other information, retailers can introduce customers to the story of food, providing them a connection with the region, the traditional methods and flavors and, in some cases, the names and histories of the people who grew their food. They'll not only establish their stores as the place to go for authentic foods, but help protect food traditions around the world, as well as in their own backyards.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer, poet and musician in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 82-83