These days, just knowing what you’re buying at your local grocery store can seem like it requires an advanced degree. 

Products are slapped with labels like “organic,” “cage-free,” “free-range,” “grass-fed,” “local” and many more somewhat nebulous terms. But what, exactly, does all that mean?  

The San Mateo Resource Conservation District will be peeling back the meaning behind food labels at a “Blue Circle” community discussion later this month. From 6 to 8 p.m. on May 29 at New Leaf Community Market in Half Moon Bay, participants will hear from presenters on a series of topics regarding food labels and local food production across the county. 

“It’s much broader than (discussing) what is organic, even though that’s one of the labels that we’re going to be talking about,” said Adria Arko, program specialist for the San Mateo Resource Conservation District. “We’re really going to be covering our agricultural community and local food production.”

The forum will also feature presentations by Kathy Webster, food advocacy manager at TomKat Ranch, and Adrian Fischer, public outreach specialist for California Certified Organic Farmers. Webster said that she will be focusing on labels involved in cattle production, delving into the distinctions between terms like “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” beef. 

“A few years ago, the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) peeled open their grass-fed label, and pretty much allow any animal that’s been out in the pasture to be labeled as ‘grass-fed,’” she said. “So it gets a little confusing for consumers. And (I’ll be) helping them to get clarity on what ‘grass-fed’ means.” 

The San Mateo Resource Conservation District has been hosting Blue Circle discussions since 2006. In the past, explained Arko, the district used the forum as an opportunity to tackle contentious or divisive topics like cannabis production and fire suppression. 

“This year’s discussion is different from what we’ve historically done,” she continued. “It’s not a contentious issue. But I’m really interested in the terms that we use around food and food labels. A lot of times (they’re) marketing terms that are being used.” 

Arko said that she was drawn to the subject of food labeling as a consumer rights issue. 

“I think it’s fair that we have as much information as we can about what we’re putting in our bodies,” she continued. “Regardless of what your beliefs are and your preferences in terms of production style, it’s about a clear understanding of what we’re getting.” 

The discussion will include refreshments and a social hour. To reserve a seat for the event, contact bryanna@sanmateoRCD.org or call 712-7765.

This version has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of the organization's name, the San Mateo Resource Conservation District. 

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