October 10, 2008

Notation to Mark Produce, Flowers Grown in San Mateo County

By Julia Scott

HALF MOON BAY -- The latest proponents of the "local food" movement aren't foodies -- they're San Mateo County farmers who want to appeal to careful shoppers with a local message of their own: a food label marked "Grown in San Mateo County."

The label, in the process of being designed by the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, could be stamped on food crates and affixed to cellophane flower packaging by the end of the year. Farmers want to draw attention to the large diversity of food produced on the coast - - much of it without synthetic pesticides -- while appealing to consumers who like knowing where their food comes from.

Few Bay Area consumers know that so much food is grown in San Mateo County on farms that are closer to San Francisco than any others in the region. Upscale restaurants now routinely list the local point of origin for the vegetables in their salads, the beef in their burgers, and their seafood. Farmers hope the labels will similarly help discriminating grocery shoppers choose a local pint of strawberries over one produced in Mexico.

"I think it's important because I think it's the way California will survive in agriculture -- people will understand where their products are coming from. I think that when people see 'San Mateo County Grown,' I believe they will buy it. They will know that we do have a safe product," said B.J. Burns, owner of Bianchi Flowers in Pescadero.

As a member of the Farm Bureau's Board of Directors, Burns started pushing for a local label after a series of food contamination scares were traced back to products grown abroad, but not before they hurt California growers because consumers could not tell the difference.

The labels will complement a rule that went into effect nationwide earlier this month requiring all food retailers to add country of origin labeling to certain foods -- including meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and several kids of nuts. The new labels will give shoppers a chance to help American food producers get a leg up on the foreign competition, but the labels do not describe whether a chicken or a carrot comes from California. It also does not apply to flowers, San Mateo County's most profitable export.

The county Farm Bureau cannot force retailers to label their local products as such, but farmers hope the San Mateo County brand will eventually become so popular that supermarkets will create a little section just for them, similar to how Safeway organizes organic items.

In the meantime, farmers will be free to add the label to whichever products they choose -- though it may not be practical to label every single artichoke.

Coastside markets have long since gotten into the practice of promoting the local fruits, vegetables and flowers they stock. Cunha's Country Store labels products that come from Daylight Farms and other growers, from Pescadero to the fields north of Half Moon Bay. New Leaf Market goes even further, adding the farmer's name and the distance the product traveled to the store.

"That's as local as it gets, aside from buying it on the farm," said Stan Pastorino, a Half Moon Bay flower and vegetable grower who recently obtained organic certification for more than 180 different varieties of produce he grows in his fields and greenhouses.

Pastorino also is a Farm Bureau board member and supports the labels, in part, because they add transparency and accountability to the process of choosing healthy food.

"If they ask, I can take someone to the exact location in the nursery, down to the exact bench where it was grown. As opposed to in Mexico, you don't know where it came from or what was sprayed on it."

Strolling through the produce section at Draeger's in San Mateo on Wednesday, Burlingame resident Sue Vezeau noticed for the first time the little flag labels on each food item denoting its country of origin. Most items were from the United States, with a few others from Canada, Mexico and Peru.

Vezeau said she already made a routine effort to buy local produce at farmer's markets, even growing a few things in her backyard. She said she would "definitely" choose a San Mateo County product over another one if she had the chance to.

"If it wasn't a specialty item and was grown in San Mateo County, I would buy that. I think it's fresher," she said.

Originally published by Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times.

(c) 2008 Oakland Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.