Shopping in the supermarket is bewildering these days.

Different food labels jump at you, claiming food safety and healthfulness. But customers beware: Foods that are sold, labeled, and represented as organic might consist of some non-organically produced substances.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took action but did not announce any results on a controversial proposal to allow 38 new non-organic ingredients in products labeled with the “USDA organic” seal. If approved, these ingredients will be added on the national list, but if not, it’s questionable as to whether currently labeled foods will keep their “USDA organic” label.

For example, products bearing the label “100 percent organic” and “organic” are made differently, according to USDA. Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The remaining product ingredients however, could be non-organically produced agricultural or nonagricultural products that are on the National List and are not commercially available in “organic form.”

But organic labeling and sustainability also mean profit, and Big Food companies are sending a strong signal by moving into organic foods. Wal-Mart, for example took steps to green up last year, so did Budweiser, with its “USDA organic” labeled Anheuser-Bush beer.

Keep ‘Organic’ Organic, Say Small Producers

Organic food advocates called the USDA proposal “a serious threat to organic standards” and raised concerns, saying that at least three of the proposed ingredients are backed by big companies, including Anheuser-Bush beer, and some big pork and food processors.

“This proposal is blatant catering to powerful industry players who want the benefits of labeling their products ‘USDA organic’ without doing the work to source organic materials,” said Ronnie Cummings from Organic Consumers Association in a statement.

Some of the newly recommended non-organic ingredients might affect a large range of foods. The proposed ingredients include conventionally raised factory-farmed animals’ intestines as casings for sausages, non-organic hops grown for manufacturing “organic” beers, traditionally processed rice starch and whey protein to produce organic cereal and breads.

The demand for organic food in the United States is booming as people look for products that are more healthful and friendlier to the environment.

Organic Trade Association’s 2006 manufacturing survey reported that the U.S. organic industry grew to reach $14.6 billion in consumer sales in 2005. Data based on historical surveys shows that the organic food business is expected to grow steadily at a rate of nearly 20 percent annually.