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Trying to Understand Food Labels

Experts attempt to decide what "natural" means. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

It can be hard to decide which foods to buy in an American grocery store these days. The information on many products makes different claims. These labels suggest that the food is safe, pure or kind to animals.

The label "organic" guarantees that the United States Department of Agriculture recognizes the product was grown under special conditions. The department says foods that meet requirements of its National Organic Program can use an official label. It shows the words "USDA Organic" inside a circle.

For example, U.S.D.A. organic food does not contain genes that have been scientifically changed. The food is grown without chemical treatments against insects or disease. It is grown without chemical fertilizers.

The U.S.D.A. organic label on meat and dairy products guarantees that they are from animals that live much of the time outdoors. The animals have been fed only organic food. The animals have not received antibiotic drugs. And they have not had hormone substances to make them grow bigger.

Organic meat and dairy products usually cost more than other products. But many people buy them because they believe they are more healthful.

The U.S.D.A. is trying to decide if fish can be labeled "organic." A decision is not expected for many months. However, the Marine Stewardship Council says its label promises that fish are not endangered and were caught without harming the local ecosystem.

There are also labels on coffee. Some coffee growers plant their crops on land with no natural plants to provide shade from the sun. Other coffee is grown under trees that provide shade for the coffee and homes for birds. This coffee is labeled "Bird Friendly." The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Council of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., guarantees coffee with the "Bird Friendly" label.

Other food labels include "natural," "cage-free" and "free-range." Experts say it may be harder for the food buyer to decide what these mean. For example, chickens may not have been raised in a cage. Still, they may have been in overcrowded conditions inside a building.

The Department of Agriculture will be holding meetings with food producers and the public to try to develop requirements for labels.

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson. Transcripts and audio files of our reports are on our Web site, I'm Steve Ember.