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Special Interests Trying To Write Rules Governing Organic Fish

Wild, not organic; amendment would bestow coveted label on fish

April 9, 2003, Wednesday, B
By JAY LINDSAY, Associated Press

A fish born wild in a pristine environment, growing freely until it's
large enough to get snared in a fishermen's net might make a tasty meal,
but it can't be an "organic" one.

Current law forbids wild fish from carrying the commercially coveted
label, even as the aquaculture industry studies how to raise "organic"
fish who will never see life outside a pen.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Dave Lackey, a spokesman for U.S.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

The law could change under an amendment that passed the Senate last week
as part of its fiscal year 2003 supplemental budget, and caught the
organic food industry off guard.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and
co-sponsored by Snowe, allows "all wild seafood to be certified or
labeled as organic."

The budget is under negotiation with the House.

Barbara Stevenson, a Portland, Maine, fishing boat owner, said the
change could boost seafood sales in markets that crave organic products,
and strike a blow for common sense.

"It's pure stupid to have to remind people that wild fish are organic,"
she said. "It's something you shouldn't have to do. But the world has
gotten so weird, it's necessary."

But the Organic Trade Association is against labeling wild fish organic.
Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the Greenfield, Mass.-based
organization, said the name simply doesn't fit.

"Organic" is not a synonym for "natural," Givens said, adding that the
label is backed by specific standards for growing food, feeding and
monitoring livestock and protecting soils that have been developed over
several years and are impossible to apply to wild fish.

James Riddle, secretary of the Natural Organic Standards Board, said the
amendment caught the organic food industry off-guard because there was
no public call for it. He added that the entire law is being reshaped to
suit a powerful special interest - in this case Alaskan salmon
fishermen.

"In no way would I say that wild is a bad thing," Riddle said. "It's
just different."

Organic fish are sold in parts of Europe, but no standards have been
developed in the United States.

If the amendment is approved, federal officials would begin drafting the
change to the Organic Foods Production Act, with input from the public
and organic foods and seafood groups - an unprecedented and likely
confusing task, Riddle said.

The NOSB and OTA have previously indicated a willingness to apply the
organic label to farm-raised fish because their diets can be monitored -
an important requirement for organic livestock that's impossible with
any wild sealife.

If farm-raised fish can be organic, but wild fish can't, fishermen would
be at a disadvantage in a competitive market, Lackey said.

"Organic foods have particular cachet today," he said. "Consumers have
been willing to pay a premium for products that are organic."

Susan Barber of Maine Lobster Promotion Council said the state's lobster
industry would happily use the organic label.

"It can only add that much more appeal," she said.

But Riddle suggests a label like "certified wild" if fishermen want to
better market their product, since wild fish simply can't meet
established standards for organic food.

"The problem with fish is there's no way ... of monitoring where they
exist, where they are, what polluted waters they might swim through,
what a cruise ship might dump on them," he said.

If the amendment is approved, consumers of wild fish may be the ones
ultimately left in the dark, Riddle said.

"It's an inappropriate use of the word (organic)," he said. "It could
lead to confusion."

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