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Special issue on local food products and systems/Numéro spécial sur les produits et systèmes agroalimentaires locaux

Proximity and typicity: a typology of local food identities in the marketplace

Angela Tregear


In light of debates in the rural sociology and geography literatures about the role and value of local food systems, this paper presents an alternative perspective of local foods: that of the marketplace. After observing the complex reality of the European market for local foods, the paper proposes a typology of local food systems, based on marketplace phenomena. The three types of system identified – direct produce, close typicity and distant speciality – are described and then critically discussed, the aim being to highlight problematic aspects of local food systems which tend to be overlooked in the literature. Problematic aspects of EC Regulation 2081/92 are included in this discussion. The paper concludes with an account of how a market perspective can enhance and enrich our understanding of local food systems

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1The literature on local food systems has expanded rapidly in recent years, particularly in the fields of rural sociology and rural geography. Studies have linked local foods to a variety of socio-economic benefits such as increased farmers’ incomes in marginal areas which may, through synergies, be multiplied across whole local economic networks1; enhanced skilled employment2; enhanced social vibrancy3; improved environmental sustainability and animal welfare4, and safer, healthier food for the consumer5. At the same time, critical contributions have begun to emerge about the extent to which local foods do, in practice, achieve these benefits, and the extent to which such systems can indeed be regarded as alternative to mainstream food supply chains6. This paper aims to contribute to these debates by offering an alternative perspective on local food systems to the rural economy and supply side-oriented studies which have tended to dominate thus far. The perspective taken here is that of the market and of the consumer. Who buys and uses local foods and for what reasons? What identities do local foods have in the marketplace and how are these mediated via producer- consumer interactions? To address these questions, the paper begins by presenting an overview of characteristics and trends in the European market for local foods, highlighting the complexities and the difficulties of speaking of local food as a singular concept. Next, a market-driven typology of local food systems is proposed, in which the key characteristics of each system are described, followed by a critical discussion of the implications for producer and consumer behaviour. To encourage debate, these sections deliberately highlight behaviours and dynamics which are often overlooked in other accounts of local food systems. The paper concludes with identification of key points of learning to be gained from a market perspective of local foods.

The European market for local foods

2At a basic level, the weight of evidence suggests that the market for local foods – in its broadest sense - is growing in Europe, albeit from different baseline levels and with variations according to country and product category. A particular feature of note is the high levels of reported consumer interest in local foods (many large-scale surveys find up to 80% of consumers are interested in buying local), but much lower levels of actual purchasing behaviour (in many countries, typically 10-20% report that they act on their interest). Attitudinal studies of local food consumption are therefore prone to positive bias, and do need to be treated with caution. Another problem in estimating market sizes and shares is that studies tend to define local food in different ways. For example, Gracia and Albisu (2001), who define local foods as ‘origin labelled products’, estimate that around 30% of European consumers ‘tend to buy’ such foods, although the national proportions vary from around 80% in France and Spain, to 8% in Sweden. Recent survey work in the UK suggests about 12% of the population regularly buys ‘regional’ foods (Groves, 2005). In Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy meanwhile, consumers also express a preference for products of their own country or region (Tregear, 2002) – a different definition of ‘local’ food.

3On the issue of who buys local foods, the picture is also very fragmented, and data are subject to the same problem of variations in how local food is defined. In studies of ‘origin labelled’ products, the indication is that in some countries, consumption is linked to consumers in older, higher education and higher income groups7, although in France it has been found that consumers interested in origin labels are those in the highest and lowest income groups8. Indeed, many studies suggest it is more meaningful to segment consumers on the basis of attitudes or values, rather than on socio-demographic criteria9. For example, in a study of Irish ‘speciality’ cheese consumers, McCarthy et al. (2001) identify that a psychological disposition of the consumer towards innovativeness and involvement most meaningfully distinguished buyers from non-buyers. Meanwhile, Skuras and Dimara (2004) find that Greek consumers’ expenditure on regional wines is linked to the extent to which they value features of cultural tradition and heritage when buying regional products. Consumers may also be segmented on the basis of the underlying needs or concerns fulfilled by the purchase of local foods. These needs can be diverse, such as desire to demonstrate regional or rural belonging10, the desire to show good aesthetic taste11, or the desire to support desirable types of agriculture or food supply chain12. In other cases, where local products are so much a part of everyday life for consumers, behaviour may be unreflexive, with purchase and usage patterns being unconscious and habitual.

4This brief overview of the European market for local foods highlights two key points. First, it is impossible to speak of local foods as a singular concept and market – there are too many different types and behaviours inherent in the mix of literature presented, which need to be teased out if local food systems are to be analysed and understood satisfactorily. The second point is that across Europe, market and consumption activity is embedded in different traditions and socio-political conventions. These shape the behavioural norms of the actors involved, and also of the researchers who seek to explain the role and value of these systems. Thus in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and francophone Switzerland, which have ‘common resource’ conventions13 and a proliferation of small-scale typical productions, collective origin-labelled products dominate the marketplace and the research agenda. Elsewhere, it is ‘alternative’ supply chains, farmers’ markets and organic foods that are the preoccupation. These differences are worthy of more recognition in studies of local food systems. Related to this point, it is noteworthy that the key European policy designed to protect and support ‘local’ foods – EC Regulation 2081/92, which offers Protected Designations of Origin and Protected Geographical Indications - is an example of a law derived from one set of conventions, but is now applied across Europe. The next section proposes a typology of local food systems that attempts to recognise these issues of embeddedness, and which considers the role and value of the PDO/PGI scheme across the different types of system.

A market-driven typology of local food systems

5To make sense of the complexity of the local food market as described above, identification of different types of system would be useful. However, rather than basing a typology from a supply-side or rural economy perspective (e.g. by level of processing of a product or by the extent to which a food has an historical or environmental link to an area), this paper proposes a typology from the perspective of the marketplace. Fundamentally, this means conceptualising local foods as bundles of tangible and intangible attributes passing between actors as part of (primarily) economic exchanges. From this perspective, the nature and evolution of local foods – their physical and symbolic characteristics, their values, representations and meanings – are the result of the behaviours and choices of those actors as they seek to interact and exchange with each other. The key to understanding local food systems therefore, is to distinguish types of food according to the particular configurations of actors involved in their exchange, and the relationships between them.

6Following this principle, the proposed typology is based on two specific dimensions. First, by the identity a local food product holds in the marketplace, specifically, whether it is a commodity or a product with special territorial character. This dimension is important because it distinguishes those foods that are ‘local’ simply because they are grown and sold within a particular geographic area, from those whose evolution is dominated by debates about authenticity and intellectual property protection. The second dimension is the nature of producer-consumer relations in the system, specifically, whether they are proximate or distant. This dimension is important because it distinguishes between exchanges driven by high levels of shared knowledge and understanding amongst buyers and sellers from those where products are exchanged through impersonal, mainstream channels. These dimensions give three types of local food system: direct produce (commodity identity products with proximate relations) close typicity (special character products with proximate relations) and distant speciality (special character products with distant relations). Note that the fourth logical system in this scheme – commodity identity products exchanged through distant channels – is not included here because it has less obvious ‘local’ characteristics. For each type of local food, the key features of actors’ behaviour and relationships are outlined, followed by critical discussion of the evolution of the type and its future research needs.

Type 1. ‘Direct Produce’

7This type refers to foods without any special link to a local territory sold directly - or via a short supply chain - by producers to end consumers within a relatively small geographic area. An example is unpackaged farm produce sold directly via on-site stalls or farmers’ markets to local residents. In this system, the key actors involved are primary producers or processors and end consumers, with at most only a small set of intermediaries (e.g. local retailers), plus institutional or agency support actors. Typically, direct produce producers act individually rather than in organised collectives, with institutional actors playing the key organising role for events such as markets. The relationships being developed are face-to-face dyadic exchanges between individual producers and end consumers. In terms of motivation, evidence suggests that producers engage in direct produce systems in order to gain better margins, and have direct relations with end consumers (Kirwan, 2004), although markets are also found to play an important social role.

8For consumers, direct produce food represents freshness, healthiness, and the opportunity to support local farmers, the direct contact with primary producers being a key feature of exchanges. Some studies also identify what could be described as a ‘meeting of hearts and minds’ between producers and consumers in direct produce systems, sharing values and desires to opt out of mainstream channels and engage in alternative food systems14. Direct produce systems are also, perhaps, the type of systems where organic products are most likely to feature. Increasingly, multiple retailers are showing interest in direct produce, trialling initiatives whereby small-scale suppliers’ produce is carried in regional stores. In practice however, multiple retailers face considerable challenges in pursuing this type of local food (Jones et al, 2004), and in principle, many authors would argue that multiple distribution channels are antithetical to direct produce systems anyway. Note that the PDO/PGI scheme has little or no bearing on this type of local food system - it is designed for foods with special character.

9What critical points can be made about direct produce systems and the research agenda around them? Overall, there is a striking tendency in many studies to take a normative stance towards the value sets of actors and the nature of their exchange relationships. Proximity between producer and end consumer, it often appears, is a route to actors behaving with kindness, care and generosity. Overwhelmingly ‘good’ intentions tend to be accorded to actors in such systems (relating e.g. to ethics, environment, health), whilst those of actors in mainstream channels (e.g. multiple retailers) are demonised, and their efforts to engage in alternative practices or chains are dismissed as cynical ploys. But what evidence is there that actors exchanging direct produce possess different, let alone superior, value sets? The claim becomes particularly problematic in light of evidence that for many producers - and for most consumers15 - direct produce represents only a small part of total production and consumption activities, respectively. Thus, rather than wholehearted engagement in a separate, alternative system, it would be more realistic to conceptualise the behaviour of these actors as the dipping and switching between alternative channels in accordance with a wide set of time, cost and wider lifestyle needs. The debt that direct produce systems owe to the mainstream economy and conventional marketing channels also should be recognised in terms of the availability of transportation, packaging and merchandising materials, communications technologies, and so on.

10There are also problems with the claim that direct produce systems represent fundamentally different, and better, actor relationships. Many fail to address fundamental inequities and problems such as exploitation of immigrant labour16, and often involve actors that were already connected to each other prior to the development of the system. The treatment in the literature of producer-consumer relationships at farmers’ markets is also remarkably uncritical, with insufficient recognition of the social risks, game-playing and etiquette involved in market situations, which can be intimidating and isolating for some actors, particularly consumers.

Type 2. ‘Close Typicity’

11This type of local food system refers to foods with special characteristics linked to the local territory, and with a name or identifier that indicates this link, exchanged in a context where there is high cultural proximity between the consumers, the products and the producers in the system. An example is Etivaz cheese from Switzerland17. The making of this cheese is a very historic, specific activity linked to the patterns of dairying in the local region, involving multiple farmers and processors who co-operate with each other. The cheese’s characteristics are strongly influenced by both natural and cultural factors, therefore its special character is clearly linked to the local area. The cheese has high recognition and renown amongst many local consumers, where it is a feature of the diet and a source of civic pride. Therefore, the links between producers, local consumers and the product are strong.

12Producers in close typicity systems may be single firms, but more often studies in the literature deal with collectively organised production systems, like the Etivaz example. In close typicity systems, supply chains are direct or short, but even where they are long (e.g. special character products distributed to expatriates), consumers have high levels of familiarity and knowledge about the product, therefore they are able to distinguish between alternatives and make their own quality judgements. Consumer behaviour in this system may be un-reflexive (a mentality of ‘this food is what we eat here’), but also can be motivated by cultural belonging (as may be the case for urbanites or expatriate consumers), particularly at culturally significant times such as festivals or celebrations. Production often involves multiple producers rather than one single supplier, and in southern European countries, these multiple actors are often configured in a collective grouping.

13It is close typicity systems, more than the other types, which are the focus of ‘basket of goods’ (Pecqueur, 2001) or ‘extended territorial’ strategy literature, in which a food with natural and cultural links to territory is used as a resource for wider rural development gains. It is a persuasive theory, and there is evidence to indicate that products in close typicity systems can indeed play this role18. In practice though, many challenges have to be faced by actors participating in such systems. First, there are issues over the community sharing of a resource, such as a food, that is produced by one specific set of actors or even a single firm. If a food is produced by a single firm, there is a need for that firm’s owner/manager to behave like a ‘community entrepreneur’ in order to achieve the ‘basket of goods’ effect.

14The emergence and sustenance of community entrepreneurs is not yet well understood. Alternatively, if multiple producer actors exist, conflicts often arise over codes of practice and boundaries of exclusion over production, an effect that is extensively studied in southern European countries19. Producer actors become pre-occupied with their relative positioning and share in the resource relative to other producers, with the consequence that wider development issues are sidelined. The PDO/PGI Regulation, as a process, may be a means of arbitration in favour of rural development benefits, but the evidence in practice is that many designations tend towards over-inclusion, which is itself a source of producer conflict as well as diluting the potential rural development benefits (Pacciani et al, 2001; Marescotti, 2003).

15It can also be argued that in close typicity systems, the role of PDOs/PGIs for consumers is also unclear: the high levels of consumer knowledge and familiarity, at best, render an authenticity marker redundant, and at worst impose an ‘industrial’ identity on the products concerned. Development strategies based on close typicity systems can also be critiqued from the point of view of determinism: that is, such strategies ‘fix’ resources in a particular historical and cultural paradigm, to the potential detriment of other opportunities and development possibilities. What place is there for the entrepreneur cheese-maker who starts making a non-territorial cheese in an area where a close typicity system dominates? Are his or her efforts worthy of support?

16At this point, it is also relevant to raise the ‘convention imposition’ critique of the PDO/PGI Regulation: given that it is the close typicity vision which helps to justify the existence of this Regulation, there are clearly issues associated with the transferral of this vision to areas which have different contexts (e.g. few collectively organised production systems) and socio-economic histories (e.g. tendency towards individual entrepreneurship).

Type 3. ‘Distant Speciality’

17The third type of local food system shares the same dimension of special territorial character as the second, but represents contexts where there is low proximity between consumers, the foods, and the producers. In other words, where the products are purchased or consumed at considerable geographic distance from production source or by local consumers who do not participate in the typical food culture ‘scene’. An example is Parma Ham being purchased for consumption by a native Londoner, or by consumers in northern Italy who have little interest in typical products. For some of these consumers, choice of Parma Ham may be motivated by a desire to buy the perceived highest quality ham, based on its reputation. For others, it may be because the name is simply well known to them. However, as consumers in this system do not have detailed first-hand knowledge to guide their choice between different types of ham, they rely more heavily on packaging and labelling information, and also, perhaps, the recommendations of the retailer. Producers in distant speciality systems face the challenge of communicating the attributes of their products at arms length, and in the face of many competitors, in a situation where consumers may take little time to choose between options. In other words, producer-consumer relations in distant speciality systems have a lot in common with intensive, mainstream food supply chains.

18It is in distant speciality systems where questions of authenticity are prominently debated. In these systems, special character food names effectively become brands, valuable economic assets in a context where consumers are paying attention to product labels, therefore brand information can be a powerful mechanism for choice. Producer reputation is embodied in the brand, therefore the brand is also the vehicle for developing a relationship with consumers. However, because of the economic values inherent in high reputation distant speciality food brands, other manufacturing firms outside the distant speciality production area are often tempted to ‘steal’ a portion of the economic rent through copying, counterfeiting and usurpation of the name or brand. In distant speciality systems, the original producers often become preoccupied with protecting their intellectual property rights from these unfair competitive actions, pursuing them by legal means. They also become focused on communicating the authenticity of their products to the distant consumers, which ironically is much more difficult than in the other two systems, given the low geographical and cultural proximities involved. However, of all three types of local food, it is in distant speciality systems that PDO/PGI labels have the potentially strongest role to play. Not only do these labels provide the legal means, across Europe, for local food producers to pursue cases of competitive misuse of their brand names, but consumers are in a buying situation where official designations can be powerful and useful choice tools.

19Perhaps unsurprisingly, the literature on distant speciality products is dominated by legal, juridical and political economy studies, which debate characteristics and merits of the PDO/PGI Regulation relative to other forms of intellectual property protection such as trademark and copyright law. When reading this literature, the link between distant speciality systems and issues of the cultural and environmental welfare of marginal rural areas is sometimes hard to make. For one thing, the PDO/PGI Regulation itself contains no criteria relating to the environment, animal welfare, production scale, or integration within the local community. Therefore, many of the high reputation distant specialities that regularly use their PDO protection to pursue legal cases of counterfeiting have question marks over their environmental and animal welfare credentials, and many are also not well integrated into their local communities. ‘Organic’ tends to appear in distant specialities as a brand extension strategy, designed to attract buyers with specific interests in that regard, as opposed to being a core interest of producers.

Conclusion: what can be learned from a market perspective of local foods?

20This paper has taken a market and consumer perspective to the study of local food systems. The perspective highlights how local food systems, in practice, are very diverse. The discussion of the different types of system identified here demonstrates how such systems cannot be assumed to operate in accordance with the same logics, nor that they exhibit the same development trajectories and support needs. For researchers, there is a need to circumscribe the contexts of the different types of system both carefully and explicitly. In doing this, it is helpful to conceptualise each system from the perspective of its socio-political context, for example, distinguishing collective, terroir-based conceptualisations of local foods from individualistic and dyadic producer-consumer based systems.

21Across the three types of local food identified, the analysis has revealed some important insights. For example, for direct produce, whilst it may be the case that such systems can be characterised by the kind of positive behaviours and relationships that are claimed for them in the literature, contradictions and anomalies also exist. Therefore, there is a need for future research to look more critically at the phenomena exhibited in these systems, and to examine the contexts and circumstances where certain behaviours do, or do not, arise. This could be done by looking beyond the most obvious types of retail outlet, producers or customers involved in direct produce systems. For close typicity systems, the analysis here has revealed the conflicts and tensions that can exist over intellectual property ownership and local development, and also how the political and scholarly preoccupation with this system risks undervaluing direct produce and other forms of food-related development system that could offer real alternatives. Future research on close typicity systems might usefully consider the other types of foods and exchanges which exist within these systems, beyond the typical products themselves. Finally, for distant specialities, the analysis reveals that in terms of capitalisation, strategy, marketing, distribution and brand preoccupations, many of the internationally renowned distant specialities have more in common with conventional multinational enterprises than direct produce foods. They sit squarely within, and benefit from, mainstream global food chains. Future research on this type of local food could usefully examine how producers strike a balance between ‘separation’ from global food chains and participation within them.

22One conclusion that may be drawn from the discussion is that market-driven preoccupations of actors in local food systems create tensions with rural development interests. When consumers’ internal trade-offs between cost, time and supporting local producers falls in favour of the former concerns, the implication is that systems are threatened. Producers may abandon culturally significant or environmentally beneficial practices in order to meet consumers’ needs better. Furthermore, as local foods become more successful in the marketplace, the more likely it is that marketing activities are conducted by professionals, so increasing the levels of image manipulation and loss of essence and veracity in the foods.

23However, it is too easy to present market forces as completely threatening and antithetical to the essence of local food systems. Actors in such systems have always conducted marketing – it is not an imposition of the 20th century industrialised world. The physical and symbolic character of local foods has always been evolving according to the motivations of actors seeking to exchange with each other. Thus for example, Camembert was originally made with blue mould, however the market was found to prefer white mould, so it is this version - the one that has become so emblematic - which became normalised as Camembert (Boisard, 1992). This kind of innovation and change can be regarded as a positive, as well as a negative phenomenon. Market forces can also be viewed alternatively in terms of the extent to which all types of local food system described here participate within, and owe a debt to, the mainstream food system for key aspects of their operation.

24Finally, the market perspective also reveals many studies’ prejudices about consumers, who tend to appear only as a ‘shadowy presence’ (Goodman and Dupuis, 2002) in many accounts of local foods in rural development. Acknowledgement is needed of the important role consumers play as co-creators of cultural knowledge and the development of the special character of local foods, through their purchasing, preparation, cooking and serving activities, not to mention in their role as community citizens, supporting festivals, educational events, etc. The market perspective also reminds us of another way to conceptualise local foods, from the perspective of the non-rural, non-supply side actor - the urban dweller, the doctor, lawyer, engineer, parent, child, ethnic minority - who regard local foods from their own worlds and preoccupations. What relevance does local food have for any of these constituencies of people? How can it help them? Future research might consider how well local foods, of any type, match the needs and lives of such persons, rather than the other way around. This may lead to a richer understanding of the representations and possibilities for local foods in Europe and beyond.

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1 Brunori and Rossi, 2000; Pecqueur, 2001
2 Ventura and Milone, 2000
3 Ray, 1998
4 Sage, 2003
5 Nygård and Storstad, 1998
6 e.g. Hinrichs, 2000; Allen et al, 2003; Tregear, 2003; Winter, 2003; Sonnino and Marsden, 2006
7 e.g. Kupiec and Revell, 1998; Söderlund, 1998; Marques and Teixeira, 1998; Skuras and Dimara, 2004; Groves, 2005
8 Giraud and Amblard, 2003
9 e.g. Trognon et al., 2000; Sanchez et al., 2001
10 Warde, 1997
11 after Bourdieu, 1979
12 Tregear and Ness, 2005
13 This refers to political systems whereby resources such as typical products are viewed as collective assets to be shared amongst stakeholders within a territory, rather that the private property of one individual producer or actor. For further discussion, see Allaire, G. and Boyer, R. (1995). La Grande Transformation de l’Agriculture: Lectures Conventionnalistes et Régulationnistes. Paris.
14 Holloway and Kneafsey, 2000
15 Weatherell et al, 2003
16 Allen et al, 2003
17 Reviron and Couillerot, 2003
18 e.g. de Roest and Menghi, 2000
19 e.g. Sylvander et al, 2000
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Electronic reference

Angela Tregear, « Proximity and typicity: a typology of local food identities in the marketplace », Anthropology of food [Online], S2 | March 2007, Online since 19 April 2007, connection on 23 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Angela Tregear

Management School and Economics, University of Edinburgh

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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