The National Organic Standards Board is scheduled to convene this week in Washington, prepared once again to dive into an ocean of questions regarding organic seafood.
The complicated process is in various stages of approval. Most recently a task force working group put the finishing touches on an outline for the farming of organic bivalve mollusks, such as clams, mussels and oysters. In March of this year, the full board voted to accept proposed fin fish standards developed by the working group; however, members have held off on approving the most controversial aspects: the use of wild-harvested fish meal and oil to feed organic fish; open-net ocean pens; and the use of compost in ponds.
“Our recommendations for everything else are in, so we're hoping this moves forward so we can have a USDA regulation for aquaculture that would apply right now for some species,” said Joe Smillie, a current NOSB board member and senior vice president of Quality Assurance International, a certification firm.
The unresolved issues are important to retailers, since they focus largely on species like salmon, one of the best-selling items in the seafood case. Some supermarket chains, such as King's, Parsippany, N.J., have looked outside of the United States to other countries where organic aquaculture is more established. The 26-store chain has been selling Black Pearl-brand organic salmon, farmed in the Shetland Islands, just north of Scotland, and imported by Martin International Corp. The fish is given certified organic feed containing organic wheat and full-fat soy, combined with sustainable fish proteins, and the finished product is certified by the Organic Food Federation, one of the first certification firms to be approved in the United Kingdom. The upscale chain also offers organic tilapia.
Some American processors do offer “organic” product, but it's likewise certified by a European entity, such as the OFF or Germany's Naturland. Companies like Henry & Lisa's Natural Seafood, Dover, N.H., or Blue Horizon, Aptos, Calif., currently limit their selection to organic farmed shrimp. They are eager for organic rules so they can expand their organic inventory, however.
“Seafood is the most complex category of them all,” said Henry Lovejoy, president and founder of Henry & Lisa's, recently. “That's because it's the last wild-harvested one of all the categories.”
Acknowledging the difficulties is one thing, but finding solutions is another. In an effort to develop a consensus acceptable to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and consumers, the NOSB is hosting an educational symposium right before this week's regular meeting to obtain scientific and academic input on the unresolved topics. The head of the NOSB's livestock committee is heartened by the attention being paid to the issues, not only by his colleagues, but by federal regulators as well.
“They did ask us for input on this issue,” said Hubert Karreman, who's also a veterinarian. “It's always nice when the USDA does ask us to do something, rather than us just making recommendations.”
The NOSB hopes to be able to forward a complete package of proposed rules for organic seafood to the USDA sometime during the spring of 2008. However, not everyone believes a universal standard is doable. Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist for Environmental Defense and a member of the working group developing the standards, said during the recent Natural Products Expo East show that it may not be possible to endorse each and every species.
“Some species may not be ready for certification,” she said.
For retailers, the challenge has become finding a way to include the seafood department in total-store wellness merchandising. While there is no domestic organic standard in place yet, some operators have been able to take advantage of consumer concerns relating to sustainability and food safety. Most of the focus this past year has been on shrimp, a supermarket best-seller. Shrimp accounts for roughly 25% of all seafood purchased in the United States every year, with Americans consuming more than 1.3 billion pounds.
Wal-Mart Stores made a big splash this spring with the announcement that it was going to start holding its shrimp suppliers more accountable. Peter Redmond, the chain's vice president of seafood, said that the company would begin requiring suppliers to be certified by either the Global Aquaculture Alliance or the Aquaculture Certification Council. Shrimp make up about 40% percent of Wal-Mart's seafood sales, and the retailer sells more than 50 million pounds of shrimp a year, most of it from Thailand, according to Redmond.
“I can tell you it's good for business,” Redmond said at the time of the announcement. “Part of the sustainability issue is it's also a business plan for us.”
More recently, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., one of the country's more forward-thinking retailers, joined with Environmental Defense on its own purchasing policy for farmed shrimp. The new standards require producers to eliminate the use of antibiotics and other chemicals, avoid damaging sensitive habitats, treat their wastewater and reduce the use of wild fish in feed. At the time of the announcement, the 17-store chain had a single supplier in Belize certified to supply the higher-standard shrimp. The plan came a year after Wegmans introduced farmed king salmon, also raised under standards developed by Environmental Defense.
Goldburg said such initiatives are critical if retailers hope to attract and retain seafood customers. Consumers know that the concerns over sustainability and overfishing are in direct conflict with the government's appeal for Americans to eat more seafood. Standards for aquaculture — organic or not — are needed to protect quality and healthfulness, particularly as the practice grows.
“Almost one-half of the seafood consumed around the world today is farmed,” Goldburg said.
- Follow the deliberations and debate at the National Organic Standards Board, at www.ams.usda.gov/nosb.
- If offering a Euro-certified seafood item, display prominent educational signage.
- The issue of sustainable species is just as big a concern with consumers. Source from accredited suppliers.