CATCHING ON

Organic-farmed fish is still a novelty in markets in the United States, Europe and Japan. Nevertheless, demand, especially for organic salmon, is expected to grow rapidly, even without a U.S. standard for organic seafood.Seafood products that meet other countries' organic standards are available in selected U.S. markets, and where they are available, they sell like hotcakes. Experts predict sales

Organic-farmed fish is still a novelty in markets in the United States, Europe and Japan. Nevertheless, demand, especially for organic salmon, is expected to grow rapidly, even without a U.S. standard for organic seafood.

Seafood products that meet other countries' organic standards are available in selected U.S. markets, and where they are available, they sell like hotcakes. Experts predict sales of all organic foods will reach $30.7 billion by 2007, growing by 21.4% annually. Organic seafood is expected to grow at a similar rate.

Although Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., is the only large retail chain with a national program to sell and promote organic salmon, a few chains offer fish raised without antibiotics or chemicals, even if not certified organic. Many independent stores and small chains are selling salmon they call organic, although some label it "organically fed" to get around the lack of U.S. standards.

Wild Oats Market stores report robust sales of Irish-farmed salmon that meets organic standards set by European Union certification agencies.

"We have a strong commitment to organic seafood," said Sonja Tuitele, senior director of corporate communications for Wild Oats. "We've shown it can drive positive results. The degree of success astounded us."

Speaking on an organic seafood panel at the International Boston Seafood Show earlier this month, Tuitele said the company's 105 stores in 24 states and British Columbia serve the "socially conscious consumer. They read newspapers. They care where there products come from. They want a store like Wild Oats to provide them with sustainable, healthy products."

Furthermore, Tuitele said the company's shoppers are "foodies" who insist on great taste.

Wild Oats launched the organic salmon program last year right after results of a study citing high levels of PCBs, a suspected carcinogen, in farmed salmon hit the media. "Timing was key," Tuitele said. "We have an alliance with the Environmental Working Group, so we knew the report was coming. We launched the day after and made national headlines."

Farmers of organic salmon in Scotland reported an immediate 10% increase in sales following release of the study.

The organic salmon program began with a storewide educational program, starting with employees. Jonathan Copeland, category manager at Wild Oats, trained the staff. Brochures in the store explained the standards under which the salmon was produced, the omega-3 content, and the lack of chemicals and antibiotics, and talked about the taste. Emerald Organics, the supplier of the salmon, also did some training, then launched sampling demos in the stores.

"It's important to get the food in the customer's mouth, or they won't know how good it is," said Tuitele. "That demo table Emerald set up was the most popular in the store." Sales of the salmon rose 25% in six months.

Wild Oats sought an opinion from the Organic Trade Association and the Food and Drug Administration before advertising the salmon as organic, said Tuitele. "They said it was all right, so long as we label it as Irish." The fish is certified organic by Germany's Naturland, an independent certifying agency, and the governmental U.K. Soils Association and the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association.

Three months after launching fresh organic salmon fillets, Wild Oats introduced a smoked version, prepared by Wright's of Howth, one of the biggest seafood companies in Ireland.

"It went through the roof at Wild Oats," said Patrick Martin, president of Emerald Organics, speaking from his office in St. Helena, Calif. Emerald Organics supplies all the organic salmon to Wild Oats.

Emerald Organics supplied the product from a 21-year-old farm, Cuan Baoi, on the south coast of Ireland, where standards for raising salmon have always been high, even before the switch to organics seven generations of fish ago, Martin said.

"These fish are fed human-grade food. The only colorant is pfaffia -- no chemicals. They don't use chemicals for sea lice, for instance. Sea lice are prevented by placing pens in a region where sea lice are not prevalent. These are raised on the southwestern tip of Ireland -- next stop, America -- a remote site, where migrating wild salmon are not an issue," said Martin. "This is not a $3.99 salmon. Wild Oats sells them for $11.99. There's at least a $3- or $4-per-pound price difference."

"Organic is simply a farming standard," said Michael McNicholas, vice president of Emerald Organics, with an office in Ridgefield, N.J. European standards are considered stringent, allowing no genetically modified additives, chemicals, hormones, and artificial colorants in feed or antibiotics. While the wild fish in the feed can't be certified as organic, any cereal or vegetable oils added to feed must be certified organic. Stocking density in the pens must be low, and the fish must be killed humanely and quickly.

"Organic seafood competes with conventional farmed fish, not wild," said McNicholas. "Is it healthy? Yes. Is it more healthy? That's for you to decide. But the absence of chemicals and synthetics would make it healthier to me."

The number of consumers purchasing all-organic food products rose from 34% to 41% between 2002 and 2004, McNicholas reported. The largest jump by age occurred in the 18- to 24-year-old group, from 28% to 47%. The next biggest surge came in the 55-to 64-year-old group, whose organic purchases increased from 24% to 37%.

"The reason for the rise is fears of food safety and health concerns," said McNicholas. "Sales of organic meat and poultry rose nearly 267% in that same period.

"In my opinion, the U.S. is 10 to 12 years behind in marketing organics, but way ahead in sales. Organic standards are in place around the world, except in the U.S."

Contrary to popular belief, there is a plethora of organic-farmed seafood products available today, including cod, European sea bass, sea bream, croaker, shrimp, caviar, sturgeon, carp, trout, tilapia, mussels, some charr and sturgeon, as well as prepared products like salads and pates, said McNicholas, who moderated the panel at the International Boston Seafood Show. New species expected for future organic aquaculture production include scallops and pangasius/basa fish.

Two U.S. producers of farmed organic shrimp, Permean in Texas and Ocean Boy in Florida, found a way around the lack of U.S. standards by applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an organic rating under livestock regulations. When they were granted approval, other seafood producers cried foul and the certification was rescinded. However, certification was recently restored.

Wild Oats and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market opposed the inclusion of seafood, wild and farmed, under the organic regulations passed by the USDA four years ago.

Most still oppose including wild stocks, saying it's impossible to monitor what the fish eat and whether their waters are always unpolluted.

Some Whole Foods stores sell the Black Pearl Natural Choice brand of Atlantic salmon. The fish is farmed in low-density pens in the United Kingdom's Shetland Islands, raised on feed certified organic in Britain, and sold through Boston-based Martin International. Whole Foods does not market the fish as organic.

Wild Oats will support a U.S. organic standard for farmed fish in the future, said Tuitele, but regulators said the process could take another four years. In the meantime, the German Naturland - Association for Organic Agriculture estimated organic aquaculture production in 2003 reached a total of about 7,500 tons.

Pleased with consumer response to its organic seafood, Wild Oats intends to introduce more products, including organic shrimp from Ecuador.