Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic Feed Debate Takes on 'Wild Fish'

More political maneuvering hooked language to a supplemental spending bill that could allow wild-caught Alaska salmon to be labeled organic. But lawmakers say that concession to Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is the ounce of prevention needed to cure legislation that gutted a key provision of the National Organic Program.

Senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle, spurred by a frantic grassroots lobbying effort, managed to attach a provision to a wartime spending bill that undoes language slipped into the Omnibus Appropriations Act that allowed livestock not fed organic feed to be labeled organic.

To get the rollback provision through the appropriations committee intact, though, amendment sponsors agreed to a rider that allows the development of an organic standard for wild-caught fish and other marine creatures.

The original legislation, added by Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., on behalf of one of the nation's largest chicken farms, Fieldale Farms Corp., was intended to deal only with meat production. But it dealt direct blows to the organic dairy and egg industries and likely would have compromised consumers' understanding of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label really means. Even Deal has apparently reconsidered the action, instructing Georgia senators and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to support efforts by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to erase his rider.

Snowe and Leahy and Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Ron Kind, D-Wisc., drafted stand-alone bills to repeal the language. The Leahy-Snowe Bill, known as the Organic Restoration Act, eventually was accepted as an amendment to the war supplemental bill.

Although insiders described the wild fish amendment as "something we have to swallow" to undo the Deal language, they're grateful it is not a mandate like the organic feed rider was. The wild fish rider requires the U.S. secretary of agriculture to develop regulations after "public notice and opportunity for comment."

Stevens called the amendment "a crucial component to our effort to provide new marketing opportunities for Alaska's fishermen" in a joint statement with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said that press release indicated confusion about what organic means.

"The basic supposition of the press release is that organic is just a marketing tool," Scowcroft said. "They want to designate wild-caught fish as organic to take advantage of the marketing tool... It shows their lack of understanding of an organic production system."

Still, Scowcroft welcomes the discussion, which may lead to development of a reasonable "wild harvested" or "gleaned" eco-label for salmon and other seafood. "I'm sure it will take years of dialogue, and more power to them," he said. "But wild is not organic. Never was, never can be."

Tom Taylor, Midwest and Southeast field organizer for the Organic Consumers' Association, said he is concerned the addition of the Stevens language sets the stage for more fiddling with NOP by special interests. "Are we going to start seeing every bill that comes out of Congress have an attachment to it that goes after the organic standards? Organic sales have increased 20 percent a year for the past 10 years, and everyone wants a piece of that pie, but they don't want to do the legwork."

Taylor said he's certain any future attempts will be met with the same kind of consumer uproar that the Deal legislation provoked. Retailers nationwide urged their customers to make their position known to their elected representatives, just as they did when sludge, genetically modified organisms and irradiation were on the verge of being allowed under the organic rule.

"The response has been huge," said Troy Phillips, Congressman Farr's senior legislative assistant. "The Organic Trade Association, OFRF and the Organic Consumers all have been working really hard on this issue. This is the next wave of organic agriculture coming forward, similar to the proposed organic rule, when 375,000 people commented on it."

Where some large retailers mobilized their shoppers with action cards protesting the Deal provision—Whole Foods Market reportedly handed out 1 million at the checkstand—smaller retailers and manufacturers took to the Internet.

"We put that information on our Web site to encourage our members to respond and let the government know what they think about the situation," said Gail Graham, general manager of Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op in St. Paul, Minn. "The organic standards are important to us, and we worked really hard to see them pass. We're pleased that it looks like the rollback is going to be corrected."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p.

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