Since the inception of the National Organic Program in 2002, there have been organic standards for meats but none for seafood. That may soon change, as both consumers and producers clamber for an organic seafood designation.
"The rising demand for organic seafood is driven not only by consumers but also by producers who are frustrated that there are organic aquaculture standards in place for other countries but not for the [United States]," said Henry Lovejoy, founder of EcoFish, a distributor of sustainable aquaculture and wild fish based in Dover, N.H. "It's putting U.S. producers at a disadvantage, especially when they're spending a lot more money to do things in a sustainable way."
From March 27 to 29, the National Organic Standards Board Livestock Committee met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the establishment of organic standards for aquatic species. The committee recommended that organic certification be offered to noncarnivorous fish in closed systems, such as tilapia and catfish. However, the Livestock Committee did not recommend certification for carnivorous species raised in open-water net pens. Instead, it suggested excluding such species for six months to gather more input from industry and consumers.
"It's hard to understand how there could be an organic standard for open-ocean, net-pen agriculture through USDA, because the organic rule specifies that you need to control the inputs and look at environmental pollution," Lovejoy said. "Significant pollution can be generated by a salmon operation, for instance."
Because farmed salmon is big business, that species has become the lightning rod for debate over certification of open-ocean aquaculture. Though consumers can sometimes find products labeled 'organic salmon' in grocery stores, these products are certified by non-U.S. agents; there is currently no definition of organic seafood under U.S. organic regulations. Some European certifiers, such as Naturaland, offer certification only for closed-system, land-based aquaculture, using criteria very similar to those spelled out in the USDA organic rule, according to Lovejoy.
Certification for salmon is supported by the National Fisheries Institute, which lobbies for businesses in the U.S. seafood industry, but opposed by a wide-ranging coalition of environmental and health organizations, as well as many chefs and retailers, who fear that certifying salmon would violate many of the key principles of organic production.
"The organic label is the premium label," said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign, based in Washington, D.C. "We believe that carnivorous fish should receive an eco label for those who follow good practices, but the organic label isn't right."
Kavanagh listed a number of specific issues with certification for open-ocean, net-pen aquaculture, including pollution caused by salmon waste, transmission of disease from farmed to wild fish, farmed-fish escapes that would dilute the genetics of wild stock, and the use of wild fish for feed.
"Wild Alaskan salmon, a very well-managed fishery, was denied organic certification because with wild fish you can't control the inputs—you don't know what it's been eating or where it's been," Kavanagh said. "So I don't understand why it would be OK to take wild fish and feed them to farmed fish. That's why our group came out in favor of [organic certification only for] fish in closed systems and lower on the food chain."
The Pure Salmon Campaign is hoping to collect consumer feedback on the issue through its Web site, www.puresalmon.org.
Speaking to the NOSB, Neil Simms, president of Kona Blue Water Farms based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, argued in favor of organic certification for net-pen aquaculture. "Why not establish organic standards, and provide an increased level of consumer confidence in seafood?" Simms asked.
But for opponents, health benefits and consumer confidence are not the primary issues. "In the push for the United States to certify farmed seafood as organic, the integrity of the entire 'organic' label is at stake," a coalition of 19 chefs wrote in an open letter delivered to the NOSB as part of the public record. "We are writing to ask you to ensure that you do not weaken our USDA organic standards."
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.9