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Controversy Swirls Over Proposed USDA Organic Standards for Fish Farms

  • Various news sources, November 2008

An article in The Chicago Tribune - "Organic definition for fish flounders: Critics: USDA proposal for seafood labeling inconsistent" - includes:

"On Friday, Consumers Union bashed the new fish standard at a press conference along with three other opponents of the proposal. Their complaint partly has to do with "net cages" commonly used in ocean salmon farming....."We could have fish out on the market that does not meet the same standards as other organic foods," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine":

A New York Times article - "On the Farm: A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish" - published over the weekend ends with:

"Myself, I'd rather eat wild cod once a month and sardines once a week than farm-raised salmon, ever":

[The author is Mark Bittman, who writes the Minimalist column for the Dining section of The Times and is the author of "How to Cook Everything"]

An Editorial - "Editorial: Naturally, a new meaning of organic smells fishy" - in The Enterprise News November 13, 2008 includes:

"But awarding the organic certification without the aquaculture industry meeting the standards is unfair to those commercial fishermen struggling to stay afloat. A shopper would be more likely to pick the item labeled USDA Organic rather than the wild caught cod that may be every bit as healthy but without the imprimatur of the federal government....But there needs to be a sustained standard if the organic label is to mean anything to consumers. A 100-percent certified organic diet, no chemicals or genetic modifications, complete disposal of effluent and a water source that is free of contaminants while not draining local sources should all be part of any organic standards implemented for the industry".

For more information on "organic" standards and a USDA National Organic Standards Board meeting in Washington DC this week visit:

"Fish Food Fight- Can Salmon Be Organic?":

"Proposed "Organic" Standards for Fish Fail Consumer Expectations":

Includes: "Allowing net pens to be certified as "organic" weakens the incentive for producers to use innovative technologies like closed containment," said Shauna MacKinnon of Living Oceans Society, a member of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform. "The industry needs technology that controls impacts, not standards that endorse the status quo."
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from The Enterprise News (Gatehouse News Service), 13th November 2008

Editorial: Naturally, a new meaning of organic smells fishy

Consumers pay a premium for certified organic food items because they believe it is worth the extra money to buy products free of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, dyes and other substances they'd rather not put into their bodies.

But a proposed federal regulation that would certify open-pen fish farms as organic could water down the meaning of the term as well as have a devastating effect on the already-reeling commercial fishing industry, especially in our region.

The National Organic Standards Board, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will hold its fall hearings in Washington beginning Monday and it is expected the board's Livestock Committee will make a favorable recommendation to allow open water aquaculture fish to carry the USDA Organic label.

The United States lags behind other countries in standardized organic regulations such as Israel, Australia and some European countries such as Norway. Here, the same mission that sets organic standards for fish uses the same base certification for cattle, lamb, and other land-locked livestock.

There are several troubling aspects in the proposed regulations, chief among them is allowing wild fish meal to be used to feed the penned fish. To maintain healthy and marketable products, the fish need a diet high in Omega oils that can only be gotten through other fish sources.

The problem is no one can certify wild-caught fish is 100 percent organic and that would be the first crack in lessening the rules for organic feed for fish and animals.

Some aquaculture systems, such as those for salmon, are "open," not contained. They are susceptible to diseases that can be spread, pollution and fish escapes that are not easily controlled or monitored in a standardized way.

Proponents of aquaculture as well as government supporters argue the organic designation, which is as much a marketing tool as it is a promise of purity, is necessary to help close the $9 billion trade gap in imported fish products.

The trade gap is increasing because demand from consumers, looking for healthier diets and lifestyles, are turning more toward fish as the commercial fishing industry is weakening because of tighter regulations to control fish depletion.

But awarding the organic certification without the aquaculture industry meeting the standards is unfair to those commercial fishermen struggling to stay afloat. A shopper would be more likely to pick the item labeled USDA Organic rather than the wild caught cod that may be every bit as healthy but without the imprimatur of the federal government.

Without question, there is a future for off-shore fish farms and regulations can be implemented to certify them as organic once aquatic standards can be developed. Even now some of the "closed" pen operations such as catfish, oysters, tilapia and shrimp ­ species that are herbivorous ­ can meet organic principles and consumer expectations such as sustainability.

But there needs to be a sustained standard if the organic label is to mean anything to consumers. A 100-percent certified organic diet, no chemicals or genetic modifications, complete disposal of effluent and a water source that is free of contaminants while not draining local sources should all be part of any organic standards implemented for the industry.

More than 90 percent of Americans say they have fish at least once a month and around here, the frequency is three times that. Certifying an aquaculture source as organic would go far to increasing that as well as relieve some of the pressure on the depletion of many species.

But to slap a valuable label on a product that hasn't earned it deceives consumers while weakening the meaning of the term "organic."

The Patriot Ledger

 

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