Monday, August 04, 2008

When it comes to seafood, organic means farmed

Marketplace reported on the high price of wild salmon, a scarce commodity in a year of salmon disasters. They don't quite hit the mark on "organic" salmon, though:

'Chef Diane Morgan is the author of "Salmon: A Cookbook." She says she's noticed a bit of bait-and-switch at high-end restaurants lately.

Diane Morgan: You'll see Scottish organic salmon and so people are drawn to that like, "Oh, I like to eat organic." It doesn't say on the menu that it's farmed. If you know enough about this industry, you know that any salmon coming out of the Atlantic is farmed.'

That's true enough, Atlantic salmon is farmed fish, but that's actually the case for all fish labeled organic. The USDA does not have standards for labeling wild fish as "organic" in part because conservation and food advocates have asked them not to.

Why? Because the organic label originates in the world of farming, where standards are based on the control of inputs: fertilizers, pesticides, colorants, etc. Wild fish swim where they want and eat what they want. You can test fish for contaminants, but you can't prevent them from snapping up tasty, mercury-filled plankton. Labelling wild fish organic is like having free-range peanut butter -- the label's irrelevant to the conservation question at hand.

There's an aquaculture working group at USDA looking at the thorny questions of "organic" fish -- what kind of feed they should eat, what kind of pens. For now, if you see organic, you're looking at a farmed fish.


David J. Hirsh said...

"Labelling wild fish organic is like having free-range peanut butter...." Top notch writing, Kate. Keep up the good work.

Hi Mark. Beach house is all but done. Looking forward to having you guys out to the coast.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Kate -- just to clarify a couple of points.

Because the USDA doesn't have any organic standards for farmed salmon, if folks are buying "organic" salmon, it's not just that it's farmed, but its being imported from a country with less-stringent organic standards.

US national standards have not been approved on account of several serious impacts of farming salmon, including that the fishmeal and oil needed to raise these fish results in the use of more wild fish than the amount of farmed fish produced. And, like you mentioned with the control of inputs, this dependence on industrial fishmeal means fish farm corporations can’t control the amount of chemicals such as PCBs in their product. Furthermore, the current practice of raising farmed salmon in open pens releases pollution directly into the ocean and allows disease and parasites to spread to wild salmon stocks unchecked.

-- Tiffany Hilman, Markets Campaigner for the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform

Kate Wing said...

Tiffany -

I can't comment on the organic standards of other countries (though I'd be interested in hearing about them, having seen some of the "biologique" produce recently in Paris) but technically speaking, those aren't relevant in using the official USDA organic seal. Whether they are 'better' or 'worse' they'd have to meet U.S. standards to use the seal, and since the U.S. has none (as you point out) salmon using the seal are in violation. Fraudulent salmon, one could say.