“Locally grown” produce sure is popular, but what is it exactly? Many produce industry sources agree it’s probably a term better left undefined.

For many growers, shippers, chefs and marketing agents, the answer to that question varies. Some say produce has to come from within a certain distance of its ultimate retail shelf to qualify as “locally grown.” Others apply a somewhat looser, regional, definition.

A debate now bubbling across the produce industry concerns whether a single definition is necessary.

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, says he is opposed to one definition, at least for the present.

“I don’t think the industry would want to go through the process of trying to define it right now,” he said. “Different companies have different definitions, and that all goes down to how they’re defining it for their customers. It seems to be working.”

Talk of possibly excluding some products from the category would only inhibit its growth, Gilmer said.

“It’s an exciting, motivating concept for consumers, retailers and foodservice,” he said. “I don’t think, for the industry at large, there’s any need to arrive at some firm consensus as to what that definition is. The real focus should be on how to capitalize on it, how to exploit the real potential for selling more product, and raise awareness and excitement with consumers about locally grown product.”

Dick Spezzano, president of Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Services, said he doesn’t think the industry can come up with a single definition for locally grown.

“We all have different definitions,” he said. “Some say it’s anything with an eight-hour drive from the farm to a DC (distribution center). Others will say within the same state of our operation. Especially where you have the year-round production states.”

Spezzano noted that “local” sometimes encompasses entire regions.

“In New England, they’ll say anything grown there would count as local,” he said. “If you went to Florida, they’d say it has to be from the state. In other areas, they consider a tri-state area. It’s whatever the culture is accustomed to.”

Ed Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting in Stockton, Calif., said the category needs more clarity.

“One retailer says it’s product that comes from within 100 miles of your warehouse, and another says it’s driving distance of one day; well, that could be 400 miles. It’s confusing to the customers.”

The category would get that clarity if an item were identified by a specific farm, city or county, Odron said.

“There needs to be a set of rules on what locally grown is,” he said.

One definition would help, not hurt, the category, Odron said.

“Somebody needs to step in like the government or PMA or United, that says this is how we define it,” he said. “Nobody would lose on it. The winners would be everybody. The customer would be the winner, because we want them to be the winner.”

Some suppliers would lose out though, said Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.

“People always have very clear definitions because they think it makes it easier, but in this case I don’t think we should be focusing on exclusionary things; it needs to be inclusive,” Verloop said.

He noted that perhaps the most common accepted definition of “locally grown” is state of origin.

“There are consumers who feel it needs to be within a 60-mile radius,” he said. ‘That small niche will find opportunities.”

But niches shouldn’t be allowed to drive comprehensive marketing programs, Verloop said.

“We tend to go toward a broader, more encompassing definition,” he said. “In most cases, within produce and other areas, the state of origin seems to be the fine line for local.”

Ted & Honey, a Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurant that places heavy emphasis on local for its menu offerings, tries to source its produce from within a 100-mile radius, said Christopher Jackson, executive chef and owner.

“If I’m getting it from the tri-state area, I’m happy,” he said. “I try not to be too strict, like keeping within 75 miles. But I like to get my core ingredients in that area.”