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Don’t fall for this “local” scam

If there’s one thing that marketers excel at, it’s pandering. So it’s hardly surprising that the makers of some of the most nutritionally useless foods are jumping on the “green” bandwagon to exploit tree-hugging, “health conscious” consumers.

Frito-Lay, one of the giants of the junk food world, is actually claiming that its potato chips are a “local food.” Talk about a double negative. To begin with, it’s an incredible stretch to claim that chips are a “food” at all. But local? It’s a bit hard to believe that this mega-corporation that churns through untold metric tons of potatoes each year is headed down to the local farmers’ market on the weekend to hand-pick some spuds from farmer Brown.

The new ad campaign is just the latest case of a wolf in green clothing. What I fear is that it just might work. After all, many “green” fans were gullible enough to buy into global warming… why not “local” potato chips from a giant corporation?

As you’ve probably figured, Frito-Lay is using the term “local” in the broadest possible sense of the word. When the chip giant says “local,” they don’t mean the same town… or the same county. They mean the same state. Thus, according to Frito-Lay, potatoes grown on a massive, 800-acre corporate farm in Florida and then shipped to a giant potato chip factory somewhere else within Florida are “locally made.”

It’s technically true, I suppose, but hardly in the spirit of what “local” is meant to imply.

The new marketing tactic takes out two birds with one stone. First, they position themselves as “environmentally conscious,” which so many people find important these days. But “local” also helps to imply that food is fresh and safe… and in the wake of the recent salmonella and E. coli scares, this is exactly what consumers are looking for.

Another food mega-corporation, ConAgra, has launched a similar ad campaign which claims that the canned tomatoes found in their Hunt’s brand are all grown little over a hundred miles from where they are processed. Canned foods and salmonella – especially tomatoes – have recently gotten a lot of publicity.

Right or wrong, the terms “locally made” or “locally grown” create the perception that the food is safer and healthier. It’s this perception that big corporations such as Frito-Lay and ConAgra are hoping to capitalize on. (Never mind the fact that potato chips are fried at such high temperatures that nothing is left alive – good or bad.)

Local food advocate and food writer Jessica Prentice complained Frito-Lay’s idea of local isn’t really sincere. “The local foods movement is about an ethic of food that values reviving small scale, ecological, place-based, and relationship-based food systems,” she said. “Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about.”

Amen to that.

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