The National Organic Standards Board's Nov. 19 decision on defining organic fish is set to "gut the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration's] organic program," according to Consumers Union, an independent product testing organization based in Washington, D.C. The coalition of Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety said the NOSB's final decision will allow fish that fails to meet the basic USDA organic standards to be labeled as organic.
Specifically, the NOSB recommended that "organic" fish could be raised on less than 100 percent organic feed while all other organic livestock for human consumption must be fed only 100 percent organic feed. The NOSB said up to 25 percent of the fish feed can be non-organic, and that organic farmed fish can be fed feed made from wild fish, which may carry mercury and PCBs.
"The NOSB is defining fish in two different ways to get around the 100 percent organic feed requirement," said George Kimbrell, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety. "They are labeling wild fish that go into the feed not as feed but as a supplement to the feed. It's about a loophole in the regulations, and it creates a bad precedent for the organic industry in general."
The NOSB also decided to permit open net cages for organic fish farming, a practice known to pollute the surrounding wild environment with disease, parasites and waste, and one that is contrary to the environmental preservation, protection and sustainability spirit of the organic standard.
In a very recent poll, Consumers Union found that 93 percent of Americans think that fish labeled organic should be produced by 100 percent organic feed, and 90 percent felt that organic fish farms should be required to recover waste and not pollute the environment.
In this first attempt to label fish organic, some members of the NOSB expressed that they were under pressure from the aquaculture industry to push through a substandard. Hue Karreman, chair of the Livestock Committee, said he was trying to jumpstart an industry by finding a middle ground.
In response, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, said in a press release, "The action taken today by the NOSB illustrates their misunderstanding of their own mission and underscores their willingness to let down the American consumer in favor of industry. The NOSB is not a marketing or promotional agency. It is an agency designed to create and maintain strict standards that meet consumer expectations."
The NOSB recommendations have been transmitted to USDA, which will issue an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking immediately.
"We will have to see the proposal from the agency itself to determine if any future litigation is necessary," said CFS's Kimbrell. "We have tried with every way possible, public comment and legal authority, to impress upon the board the problems, both policy and legal, with this proposal. This is a bad proposal — we are going to fight it all the way."