TRENTON – Stores in New Jersey that label produce from other states as locally grown could be fined as much as $200 for each piece of fruit or vegetable they sell, under a bill advancing in the state Senate.

It’s not clear if the bill will make it through the Legislature by early January, given that it doesn’t yet have an Assembly counterpart and encountered some opposition. But its sponsor is Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, one of a spate of new bills he has introduced in the final lame-duck session before he leaves office.

Ed Wengryn, a research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said the bill endorsed Monday by the Senate Environment Committee at least starts a discussion about honesty in advertising.

“People being lazy a little bit in the supermarkets – stuff comes in, put it on the shelf, move it out, and not paying attention to their own promotional materials,” Wengryn said. “And we think that’s dishonest for the customers.”

Cold weather early last spring meant farmers in the South got a late start planting. Their products hit the market around the same time as local ones – leading to problems for New Jersey farmers, in turn leading to the proposed bill.

Mike DeLoreto, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Food Council, said he understands the sentiment but that the change would be tough for grocers – including what he called “extremely punitive penalties” if, say, apples are brought in from New York to cover a supply chain shortage.

“The penalty is $100 to $200 per piece of fruit or vegetable,” DeLoreto said. “So that bushel of apples, which is about 120 apples, with the wrong signage would be a penalty of $12,000 to $24,000.”

There’s also the prospect that New Jersey farmers could be hurt if the bill becomes law and other states reciprocate – for instance, barring produce from New Jersey from being sold as local in New York City or Philadelphia.

Mikey Azzara, founder and owner of the food distributor Zone 7 in Ringoes, said it’s too restrictive to limit the locally grown region to New Jersey and that it would be "common sense” to include Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, as well.

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Azzara said he understands the concerns if South Carolina peaches get labeled as local.

“Clearly, they are not from anywhere close to here,” Azzara said. “But Bucks County, Pennsylvania farms are equally close to a Princeton store, if not closer, to South Jersey.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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