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Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., C.E.C. Headshot

From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: How Fresh Is Fresh Enough?

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For many years now, the farm-to-table movement has been championing the power of showcasing the farmers and their produce. Some might argue, it's all farm-to-table and that might not be too far from the truth. However, when well-meaning chefs use the phrase, they are referring not just to using the freshest, seasonal ingredients, but they also want to tell the customer where the ingredients come from. Our hope is that when possible, the customer will in turn support the producer and consequently, sustain the small farm agricultural economy of the region. Another hope is that we are consuming "fresh" ingredients that have seen minimal storage and preservation.

In the State of Florida, when a grocery store label reads "Fresh from Florida", at the very least, one is, or at least should be guaranteed that the ingredient has been procured from one or more of the over 47,000 agricultural producers in the state of Florida. It's the other part of that phrase ("Fresh") that requires some clarification. When we host farm dinners through the restaurant where we take the dining experience to a local farm and create a menu inspired by what's growing right now in the farm, we may be 24 hours away from a freshly harvested vegetable or fruit. As a chef, even that seems not so fresh. But the reality is that the vast majority of produce and even seafood in grocery stores have been held at exacting and controlled environments to inhibit spoilage, prevent over ripening, and frankly, to provide certain in-demand produce year-round. It's all in the labeling isn't it? "Fresh from Florida" is a great marketing campaign aimed at celebrating the rich agricultural bounty of the State of Florida. It would be nice if we had a clue about what exactly the word "Fresh" is referring to. A quantifier which guarantees that the produce was harvested or the fish was caught no earlier than a stated date or timeline might be nice. Of course, demanding this would require significant controls in the production, distribution, and warehousing processes, but when the word "Fresh" is an integral part of the selling point, it seems like a reasonable expectation. After all, building consumer trust is one of the greatest guarantees of loyal patronage.

This editorial is in no way aimed at attacking the idea of a state benefiting from its own agricultural bounty. In fact, the central stated motive of the campaign is "focused on building awareness and sales of fresh produce, seafood, and other Florida products." There's that word again. Without getting bogged down in the logistics of dating everything exactly, a simple guarantee along the lines of "harvested within the past month" would at least be a step in the right direction.