California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill earlier this month that advocates hope will clean up the waters of organic labeling. SB 730, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jackie Speier, prohibits labeling any seafood sold in the state as organic. "Labeling seafood as 'organic' in the absence of any state or federal certification standards is misleading, confusing and soon will be illegal," Speier said.
The issue of organic standards for seafood has been contentious within the organics industry, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a task force to help develop such standards. According to Consumers Union policy analyst Elisa Odabashian, seafood labeled organic does not necessarily conform to the same standards as food that is certified organic by USDA. It may contain significant levels of mercury and PCBs and may not be produced in an environmentally responsible manner.
"The rogue use of the organic label on fish and seafood without the establishment of a state or national standard is an unauthentic use of that term and undermines the trust that consumers have come to place in other organic-labeled foods," Odabashian said.
California is the first state to explicitly prohibit sales of seafood labeled organic.
"Knowing that California's economy is huge, we hope that it will act as a sort of precedent for the nation," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union.
"I think that the bill is an unfortunate piece of legislation," said Michael McNicholas, U.S. market manager for Johnson Seafarms, which has sold an "organic" cod until now. The cod is farmed to organic standards in the United Kingdom, without the use of antibiotics, genetic modifications or other organic bugaboos, McNicholas said.
"We don't have mutual recognition with Europe and for very significant reasons," Rangan countered, citing environmental and contamination concerns.
"There's even more issues," she said. "There's been an argument made by certain producers: 'We're meeting the USDA livestock standard.' We've been saying, 'Y'know what? Cows don't swim.' There are so many more things that need to be taken into consideration when you're dealing with an aqueous system," such as bioaccumulation of contaminants. It's not only the feed, but also the systems that they live in."
But McNicholas had additional concerns. "[The bill] seems like it's a restriction of trade and it seems like it also overrides federal regulations. … The Organic Food Production Act … doesn't need to be added to at the state level—at least that would be my opinion," he said.
"The reason that the [California] legislation was introduced in the first place is because we were having so much trouble getting USDA to do that," Rangan said. "The law certainly says that any food carrying the label needs to meet the terms of the act. Unfortunately we've seen lots of producers using the organic label," Rangan said. "I'm still pulling teeth with USDA to enforce not using the USDA label," she said, noting that USDA's compliance office has said it will not allow such practices after Oct. 30.
"We do hope that we can use this piece of legislation to apply pressure upward and nationally so that all consumers can benefit from the same thing California consumers are going to benefit from: no more fraudulent labels on seafood until standards can be established," Rangan said.
McNicholas said the legislation would minimally impact the way his company does business, in California or elsewhere. "Johnson Seafarms have been raising cod as a natural product from the beginning; getting the organic certification was sort of a side effect," he said. "We will continue to market it as a sustainable alternative to wild cod."
Rangan had no issue with that, as long as that company—or any other—didn't call it organic. "USDA organic is not a marketing term, it's a certification you get when you've met certain high standards and those standards don't exist."