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Lawmakers Want to Put More Bite in Law Protecting 'Jersey Fresh' Brand

Despite worries about counterfeiting, actual cases are hard to dig up.

In 1992, The New York Times ran a story titled, “What's in a Name? If It's New Jersey, Not Much.”

The article noted that not one trendy food launched the previous year contained the words “New Jersey” or “Jersey.” And it quoted the founder of San Francisco product-naming agency as saying, “I can't imagine ever naming any foodstuff or lifestyle product . . . after New Jersey, because the general impression . . . is that it is a crowded, crime-ridden state. All I hear about New Jersey is the Garden State, which does not mean anything to anybody."

What a difference two decades can make.

"Jersey Fresh" isn't a joke; it's a brand -- a popular one, with its own promotional and quality-standard programs and trademarked logos. And its own counterfeiters (just like Coach bags and Rolex watches). Some farmers, fishermen, food processors, and retailers are fraudulently labeling their products as Jersey-grown.

And several South Jersey lawmakers are pushing a bill to protect the integrity of the state’s brand.

“The ‘Jersey Fresh’ label conveys an expectation of a certain level of taste and quality that consumers have come to trust,” wrote Assemblyman Matthew Milam (D-Cape May Court House) in a statement.

“When consumers buy counterfeit products with that label, it doesn’t just impact their experience, it damages the entire reputation of the ‘Jersey Fresh’ brand, which is something that our farmers and our retailers simply can’t afford.”

A law passed during this past legislative session doubles fines to $100 for a first offense and $200 for each subsequent offense for falsely using the Jersey Fresh, Jersey Grown, Jersey Seafood, and Jersey Bred trademarks. The fine is imposed for every package or unit of fruits, vegetables, horticulture, and seafood.

Seeking Tougher Penalties

Last month the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved Milam’s bill to further stiffen the penalties against counterfeiters. If the bill becomes law, the state will have the authority to confiscate, destroy, sell, or donate mislabeled items.

“When counterfeit ‘Jersey Fresh’ products are found, we need to get them off the market as quickly as possible,” added Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cape May Court House). “Nabisco or Kraft wouldn’t tolerate counterfeiters trying to pass knockoff Oreos or Mac and Cheese as the real thing on store shelves and neither should the farmers, butchers, and fishermen behind the ‘Jersey Fresh’ label.”

Though the New Jersey Department of Agriculture reported fewer than eight complaints last year, all of which were investigated and deemed unfounded, bill co-sponsor Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Salem) says counterfeiting is a real issue that worries constituents in her rural district.

“My local farmers and local grocers feel there’s a problem,” she said, noting that often people with grievances decline to formally register their complaints, thus making it hard to get a sense of the size of the problem. “We felt like the penalties weren’t severe enough [to deter people] from committing a crime.”

According to the agriculture department, the problem frequently manifests itself when out-of-state distributors ship their products to New Jersey in containers bearing Jersey Fresh logos, particularly during seasons when the local harvest is late. According to Riley, counterfeiters often use branded boxes or crates that Jersey farmers originally used to ship legitimate Jersey Fresh products.

The bill in question passed unanimously through the agriculture committee, which is chaired by Albano. Last session’s anti-counterfeiting bill was approved unanimously by both houses before it was signed by Gov. Chris Christie.

Yet despite its recent history, this session’s bill has yet to find a Senate sponsor.

Joining Jersey Fresh

Participating in the Jersey Fresh program costs only $30 per year. In order to qualify, an applicant must have products inspected and declared to be of an equal or higher quality standard than U.S. No. 1.

The program began in 1985 and, according New Jersey agriculture officials, is the oldest and most widely recognized such initiative in the country, one that has provided the model for similar marketing campaigns in the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and beyond.

“Jersey Fresh is as recognized among residents as other states’ successful agricultural marketing-outreach efforts, like Idaho potatoes, Wisconsin cheese or California’s “Happy Cows,” asserts John Gibbons, acting director of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) New Jersey field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

No official statistics bolster the claim that Jersey Fresh ranks among the nation’s most successful agricultural brands, but a study by the Rutgers University Food Policy Institute found that every dollar spent on Jersey Fresh through the year 2000 generated $54.49 of increased economic output in the state.

Further, New Jersey ranks in the nation’s top 10 for production value, harvest, and bearing acres in nine different crop categories. And the value of the state’s crop production more than doubled between 1985 and 2011. This, despite the Jersey Fresh program losing half its advertising budget between 2004 and 2013.

Still, despite the quantifiable gains of New Jersey's farms and farmers, Jersey Fresh’s success hasn’t translated to positive buzz for the state as a whole. Between 1996 and now, no more than four named food items have boasted a Jersey connection on their label.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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