Governments play an important role in all phases of a food system – various federal, state, and local laws regulate everything from the farms on which food is grown and which foods are economically feasible to grow, to the labeling and distribution of that food. It should come as no surprise that governments have an important role to play in the protection and promotion of place-based heritage foods. One public policy in particular that can help in this area is protective labeling practices, or “geographic indicators.”
The model for protective labeling of place-based heritage foods is France – the home of the concept of terroir, a term originally used to describe wine that is now applied to many other products, that refers to “specificity of place, which has come to include not only the soil in a region, but also the climate, the weather…and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another.” The French system of appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), which protects foods and drinks that have historical links to particular geographic locations, originally emerged due to the advocacy of agricultural groups who were concerned about international competition and fraudulent marketing – such as a sparkling wine marketing itself as “champagne” that was not produced in the Champagne region. Today, the law protects groups of producers in particular regions who work with the government to create a well-defined geographic area of origin, work together to promote the food, and commit to maintaining quality and preserving artisan production methods.Though these protective measures may limit the supply of the product, consumers are well aware of the strength of the brand and the assurance of quality of the product, and the foods are the better for it.
The place-based designation concept is not totally foreign to the United States – many states (including Virginia) have agricultural marketing programs aimed at promoting foods grown in-state. One of the most well-developed place-based initiatives is the American Viticultural Areas, federally designated geographic wine-growing regions. (You’ll notice our own local AVA – Monticello – referenced on bottles from local wineries.) One of the most famous examples of a place-based food in the United States is the Vidalia Onion, a type of onion whose production is limited to certain counties in Georgia, as defined state and federal level legislation. There’s even an example of this in Virginia, where the definition of a true Smithfield Ham is protected by law.
The Vidalia Onion is a particularly useful example of the ways in which a group of relatively small producers utilized public policy to gain prominence and successfully charge a price premium. Producers must receive approval from the Georgia Department of Agriculture to sell Vidalia onions, and all producers agree on a uniform quality control scheme in order to protect the consistency of the product. The Vidalia Onion Committee organizes an annual festival and other events to promote the product. One study of the success of the Vidalia notes that the market for Vidalias is driven by “consumers’ perception of these onions as a higher-value product compared with other onions,” resulting in a willingness to pay a price premium.
Why go to all the trouble? As the case of Vidalia onions shows, these types of initiatives provide both social and commercial benefits for heritage foods: products are differentiated from their generic competitors, creating the space for a market niche or competitive advantage, and through that differentiation, agricultural communities can achieve increased specialty market share and the preservation of local techniques can be supported.
Of course, geographic indications do not necessarily suggest anything about the methods of production or how close it is to a “historical recipe.” Defining the requirements to be labeled “Monticello area heritage product,” for example, could serve as an excellent opportunity for community engagement and asset identification. For instance, would each producer need to use the same recipe and ingredients (if it’s a processed food), or use similar growing techniques (if it’s a raw food), or share some sort of geographic similarity? How would the group define “heritage?” Each community needs to decide this on its own.
While it’s unlikely that a nascent heritage product will get state-level protection any time soon, there are a number of steps that small producers can take to put themselves in a position to create a market niche just as Vidalias have:
- Identify like-minded producers, chefs, and consumers to create local awareness and usage of the product;
- Reach out to Virginia Agriculture Extension representatives to gather information about what resources are available for production and promotion;
- Identify greater networks (like heritage trails or museums) to tap into larger networks of potential customers;
- Consider a public event like a festival or tasting competition to engage unfamiliar consumers.
Going through this process will not only help young food industries scale up and out by articulating precisely what is special about the product and the place from which it originates, but will put them in a stronger position to work together to expand the reach of their product. Numerous studies have shown that discerning customers are willing to pay a price premium to get their hands on the “real thing” – authenticity is one of the core values of today’s food movement. A conversation that begins with asset-identification and defining heritage can lead eventually to a stronger product that both promotes and preserves heritage – a win-win if there ever was one.