Food labels multiply, can confuse consumers

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FRESNO, Calif. -- Want to avoid pesticides and antibiotics in your produce, meat, and dairy foods? Prefer to pay more to make sure farm animals were treated humanely, farmworkers got their lunch breaks, bees or birds were protected by the farmer and that ranchers didn't kill predators?

Food labels claim to certify a wide array of sustainable practices. Hundreds of so-called eco-labels have cropped up in recent years, and consumers are willing to pay extra for products that feature them.

While eco-labels can play a vital role, experts say their rapid proliferation and lack of oversight or clear standards have confused both consumers and producers.

"There is the potential for companies and producers to make false claims," said Shana Starobin, a food label expert at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Eco-labels have multiplied in response to rising consumer demand for more information about products and increased attention to animal and farmworker welfare, personal health, and the effects of conventional farming on the environment.

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"Credible labels can be very helpful in helping people get to what they want to get to and pay more for something they really care about," said Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports. The problem, Rangan and others said, is that few standards, little oversight and a lot of misinformation exist for labels.

Some labels, such as the USDA organic certification, have federal government standards. But others have little or no standards, or are certified by unknown organizations or by self-interested industry groups. The problem is global, because California's products get sold overseas and fruits and vegetables from Europe or Mexico with their own eco-labels make it onto U.S. plates. -- AP

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