The seafood industry has waited for organic standards with the patience of a fisherman.
Five years without a definitive resolution is beginning to roil once-placid waters, however, as efforts to line up the many disparate voices into some sort of consensus continue. Many observers fear that ongoing discussion and debate, while admirable in principle, are beginning to impact consumers.
“By their purchasing, they're telling us they want organic product,” said Gary Robertson, vice president of sales and marketing at American Gold Seafood, a processor of both wild and natural farmed salmon. “With the health aspects of seafood, even compared to the other proteins, we need to be able to offer the consumer an organic choice.”
At its most recent meeting, a National Organic Standards Board committee recommended that species raised in open net-pens and those fed meal made of wild-caught fish, such as salmon, be excluded from organic aquaculture standards. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture concurs, then the proposal would likely mean no organic option, since almost all salmon is either caught wild — never seriously considered for organic certification — or raised in ocean pens. Some processors increasingly favor moving ahead on certifying vegetarian, inland farm products like tilapia and catfish, so consumers can at least buy something organic in the seafood department.
“For those producers who are producing a clean, sustainable, land-based farm product, they're really being put at a competitive disadvantage by the lack of a standard,” said Henry Lovejoy, president of Dover, N.H.-based EcoFish, a supplier of fish from environmentally sensitive fisheries. The company does offer organic shrimp certified by Germany's Naturland, and wants to offer more under a USDA label.
The salmon industry will spend the next six months promoting its well-worn case for inclusion in the USDA program. Robertson said ocean “farms” and their land-based counterparts share more similarities than opponents want to admit.
“You can't control the current or the movement of fish within the pen system,” he said. “Likewise, on land you can't control the wind, you can't control the rodents, you can't control the bugs and you can't control the birds.”
He added that feed is being reformulated to address concerns over non-organic, wild components, and pen systems are undergoing technological improvements that minimize non-organic influences. The goal now is to push that angle in the months leading up to the next NOSB meeting in the fall.
“I think that this time around, we are going to make sure we're organized and get our message out there.”