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Organic isn't always best label for salmon

THE WASHINGTON POST; Additional reporting by staff writer Erica Marcus

April 13, 2004

Next to the shimmering sides of salmon in the seafood case at the market, little white signs often indicate the fish's origin or upbringing: farm-raised, wild, Icelandic, Atlantic, Copper River, Norwegian and so on. For anyone keeping count of the dizzying array, another flag with another term has now been stuck in the ice.

In response to a study in early January that incriminated farm-raised salmon as containing substantially more PCB, dioxin and other cancer-causing contaminants than wild salmon, some stores have begun to offer customers salmon labeled "organic." Does this term ensure that the salmon is contaminant-free? Does it mean it is wild? Was it fed an organic diet? In fact, these organic salmon are farm-raised. And although organic salmon differs from conventional farm-raised salmon in several important ways, there is no evidence to date that indicates the contaminant level of organic farmed salmon is less than that of conventional farmed salmon.

Many Americans have come to trust the word organic as an indication that a product is relatively free of contaminants and its producer is environmentally responsible. But there is an important distinction with salmon. Notably absent from the placards next to the salmon is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic seal. This symbol, introduced in October 2002, lets consumers know that the product is in compliance with the standards of the National Organics Program of the USDA. However, the program does not currently have standards that pertain to seafood. "We may someday address aquatic species. It just hasn't happened," said Joan Shaffer, National Organics Program spokeswoman.

The use of the term organic in conjunction with salmon is not in violation of USDA policy because there are no standards for salmon and because the USDA regulates only the use of the organic seal and, in the case of salmon, not the use of the word organic. In fact, there is no regulatory agency in the United States that sets organic standards for salmon.

European standards

In Europe, however, regulations for organic aquaculture, or fish farm operations, have been in place for at least five years. Most salmon labeled organic originates in the chilly waters of the north Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of Ireland, Nova Scotia and Scotland.

For salmon to be labeled organic, the farm must operate in strict adherence with standards set forth by any of several organic-certifying agencies in Europe. These standards are stricter than those applied to conventional aquaculture operations. Under the rules of the Soil Association, a British-based agency, the number of salmon per pen is half that of conventional farms to minimize crowding and resulting disease; the salmon are fed fish meal containing the trimmings of fish fit for human consumption rather than industrial fish meal, and the amount of fish oil is lower than that in conventional fish meal (fish oil is a suspected source of cancer-causing contaminants); the use of pesticides to treat sea lice is strongly restricted; the synthetic pigment, canthaxanthin, which mimics the pink coloring crustaceans impart to wild salmon, is prohibited. All organic aquaculture operations are inspected at least once a year.

Unconventional choices

Following the report of contaminants in farm-raised salmon, some fish retailers have decided to sell European-certified organic salmon in addition to conventional farm-raised and wild salmon.

Stuart's Seafood Market in Amagansett and Jewel of the Sea in Roslyn Heights offer Black Pearl "Select Farm-Raised Scottish Salmon," which has been certified organic by the Soil Association and, according to the salmon's label, "raised upon a European Union-certified organic diet without the use of artificial or synthetic additives or pigments."

Jerry Vera, the owner of Jewel of the Sea is selling conventional farm-raised salmon as well as Black Pearl organic. When wild salmon becomes more plentiful, later this month, he will offer it instead of the organic.

At Stuart's, owner Bruce Sasso offers wild and Black Pearl organic salmon as well as conventional farm-raised salmon.

At most stores, the price of salmon labeled organic hews closer to that of wild (around $15 per pound) than conventional farmed, which ranges anywhere from $6 to $10. Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods store in the country, sells farm-raised and wild salmon but does not label any as organic.

"We ... are not going to label anything organic until there are specific standards set," said Joe Stouffer, seafood manager for mid-Atlantic Whole Foods Markets.

Consumers may want to ask more questions of their fish supplier as to the source of the fish.

And then there is the issue of taste. When both organic and conventional farm-raised salmon were seared and sampled with wild, there was little distinction in appearance, texture or flavor between the two varieties of farm-raised. They both paled compared with wild salmon.

Additional reporting by staff writer Erica Marcus

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.