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Debate Continues Over Fish Labeled as Organic

WASHINGTON - If you buy salmon with an organic label, do not assume it is truly organic.

The round, green "USDA Organic" seal is not allowed on seafood. At least not yet.

If the label says organic, the fish are not from the United States. Rather, they come from countries where chemicals and antibiotics might be used to keep fish healthy.

"You're paying more for something that is not any different and not any better for you, and certainly not better for the environment," said Andrea Kavanagh, who heads the Pure Salmon Campaign for the National Environmental Trust.

Those who sell organic fish say the fish have been raised as naturally as possible and certified in other countries that recognize the organic designation.

In the United States, an organic label has very specific meanings, depending on the product:

- Food animals cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

- No pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetic engineering are allowed.

- Farms must be certified by a government-approved agent.

In other countries, the rules are not always so strict. For example, Europe allows antibiotics if an animal is sick. Also, organic salmon farmers can use a pesticide to control a vermin called sea lice.

Seafood raised under these rules are sold in American supermarkets and restaurants, often with an organic label. The U.S. government says that is OK, even if chemicals or antibiotics are present.

"We don't have a standard for organic fish," said Barbara Robinson, head of the Agriculture Department's National Organic Program, which provides the "USDA Organic" seal. "If there were a standard, we could go after them for mislabeling."

Critics say the department can pursue penalties and fines just as it can for foods that can carry the seal.

"If they don't have a standard, then it shouldn't be on the market," says Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental and public health group. "They're saying we don't have a standard, so we're allowing the word 'organic' to mean nothing. That's just an abdication of their duty and responsibility."

In 1990, Congress told the department to set national standards for organic products to assure consumers such products meet consistent and uniform standards.

Richard Martin, who sells European-certified organic salmon and cod from the Shetland Islands, says there is room for other organic labels in the marketplace. Martin is president of Boston-based Martin International, which sells fish under the Black Pearl name.

"I don't see organic as a universal definition because there are different standards in different places," Martin said. "You have to identify the standards. You have to say according to whom."

His company encourages retailers to display cards that explain how the fish was certified. Organic Black Pearl fish are sold at the Kings chain of supermarkets in New Jersey, ShopRite supermarkets on the East Coast and other stores in New York City and Ohio, Martin said.

Seafood companies are pushing for adoption of U.S. standards for organic fish. U.S. consumers like organic food and have shown a willingness to pay a premium for it. Growth in organic food sales has been 15 percent to 21 percent in recent years, compared with 2 percent to 4 percent in total food sales.

The department has tried for several years to set standards for fish, but the issue is tricky.

- Start with fish caught in the wild. How do you control the food or environment of a fish that swims in the ocean?

- How do you give organic food to salmon, for example, when salmon eat other fish?

- What if fish migrate through waterways laced with toxins?

These questions are easier to answer with farmed fish, according to an Agriculture Department task force. Farmed fish such as salmon live in net pens in the open water; fish such as catfish and tilapia can be farmed in closed tanks or ponds.

The idea of labeling farmed fish as organic is ironic to some critics. They insist that fish farms can pollute water, deplete other fish populations and expose consumers to higher levels of toxins.

"The bottom line is, the whole notion of what is organic aquaculture or organic farmed salmon is very hazy and confusing," said the Pure Salmon Campaign's Don Staniford.

Fish farmers argue their operations can keep waste under control and that fish can be given a steady, sustainable diet.

The task force has recommended several options for what a USDA Organic fish might eat, although the department is months, even years, away from deciding whether to set standards.

In the meantime, says Robinson, who heads the organic program, people will have to learn more about what they are paying for. "Buyers have to pay attention," Robinson says.