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USDA Allowing Bogus Organic Labels on Fish from Fish Farms

Organic label muddies the waters

Carol Ness, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

"Organic salmon" reads the sign stuck into pretty, deep-pink fillets in
Tower Market's fish case.

Same goes at Drewes market in Noe Valley. Ver Brugge's in Oakland's
Rockridge calls the salmon "organically fed." Up in Larkspur, Yankee Pier's
menu boasts "grilled organic chinook salmon."

At $8 to $10 a pound, sales of the fish have been climbing in the Bay Area
for the last few months. With wild salmon out of season for months at a
time, consumers alarmed by reports of PCBs, dioxin and other contaminants in
conventionally farmed salmon are snapping up this new alternative.

"Any time they see 'organic,' people are going crazy for it," says Don
Dacanay, behind the fish counter at Tower Market in San Francisco.

Even when the local wild salmon season opens May 1, fishmongers predict that
prices for wild king steaks and fillets will be so high this year that the
"organic" fish will keep selling well into summer.

There's just one catch: It's not organic. Fish can't be certified organic in
the United States, because federal rules governing organic foods don't cover
fish. They only apply to crops and animals raised on land. And these fish
aren't certified organic by any other country, either.

So what's going on?

The short answer is that the "organic" fish are farmed salmon, from British
Columbia and Scotland. Their producers say the salmon are being raised in a
cleaner environment with more room to swim than most farmed fish. They get
better food; some even eat certified organic feed. They're not given
antibiotics or hormones. Chemicals aren't used to clean their nets.

Yankee Pier chef Phil Conde says, "They're very similar to free-range

Most of what's labeled organic in local stores and restaurants is farmed
king salmon raised in Clayoquot Sound, an inlet on the British Columbian
coast, by Creative Salmon Co. The feed isn't organic, and contains minimal
amounts of grain. Pigment is added. The fish contain some contaminants. But
their flesh is bright and firm, and the fish arrive looking healthier than
other farmed salmon, Conde says.

Scottish fish

Also sold locally, in some Whole Foods Markets, is the Black Pearl Natural
Choice brand. This Atlantic salmon is raised on feed that's certified
organic in Britain in lower-density pens off Scotland's Shetland Islands,
and sold through Boston-based Martin International. Whole Foods doesn't call
it organic, but clerks can tell customers about the fish's cleaner pedigree.

In many fish markets, the salmon has become an attractive alternative since
reports about contaminants in farmed salmon sent demand plummeting.

At Ver Brugge's meat and fish market, Jerry Ver Brugge says, "We're not even
using typical farmed salmon anymore. We stopped it. After this debacle, we
put in the organic fish for $1 a pound more. We're selling just as much, and
no more controversies."

Drewes market in San Francisco sells about 80 pounds of "organic salmon" a
day. Customer Michael Laird, buying a 1 1/4-pound fillet for dinner one
recent day, explains.

"I have kids, so I am concerned about hormones and diseases cropping up in
farm-raised salmon," he says. "And it's good."

It doesn't bother him that the fish isn't certified organic by anyone.
Organic is more a general concept to him, and once Drewes' owners Josh and
Isaac Epple explained how the fish was raised, he was satisfied.

Neither Creative Salmon nor Martin International labels their fish organic,
although Creative Salmon's laminated sign, posted at Tower and Ver Brugge,
says "organic certification pending." But both companies think their fish
should qualify as organic and are pushing their governments to set standards
for organic farmed fish.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which governs organic rules in this
country, is also under pressure from Alaska to allow wild-caught salmon to
be called organic. So far, the USDA hasn't waded in.

Yet, "organic" is what the salmon is being called by some wholesalers,
markets, restaurants, and the people eating it.

That's OK with the USDA, spokeswoman Joan Shaffer says, as long as signs or
labels don't display the USDA organic seal, or imply that the fish meets U.
S. national organic standards.

"Because there are not standards," Shaffer says.

This stance, clarified in a USDA statement April 13, begs the question of
whether the word "organic" alone carries an implication, since the USDA's
National Organic Program went into effect in October 2002. Shaffer says the
USDA controls use of the term "organic" for crops and critters raised on
land, but not for categories that aren't covered by the organic program,
including seafood and cosmetics.

"It's kind of consumer beware," says Brian Leahy, president of California
Certified Organic Farmers.

Whole Foods has chosen not to call any fish organic, even if it's certified
by another country that does have standards.

"We don't feel comfortable with some of the overseas certifiers," says
national seafood manager Dick Jones. And different countries have different

"It's very confusing to us when seafood is labeled organic because we don't
know just what that means," he says. "We think that until it's defined, it's
also confusing to the consumer."

Some Bay Area fishmongers are more direct.

"We find it to be a crock," says Tom Worthington at Monterey Fish, a
sustainably inclined San Francisco wholesaler with a retail market in
Berkeley. He's not selling the salmon.

Using organic feed and no antibiotics or hormones "are good things,"
Worthington says. "But the real problem is what happens to the environment."

Pollution from feed and feces, diseases and the problem of escaping fish
entering the wild gene pool are the other half of the equation, he adds.
That view is held by an environmental coalition that's fighting Creative
Salmon's operation in Clayoquot Sound.

At Berkeley Bowl, fish manager Ted Iijima agrees with Worthington. And he
says 9 out of 10 of his customers are "anti-farmed fish."

"For fish, who can truly say it's organic? And who sets the guidelines for
that? I get off the boat there."

With the opening of California wild salmon season just days away,
Worthington says, "Why would anyone want farmed king salmon when we're
entering the (wild) king salmon season soon, and it's already organic and
living on its own and doing what it does?"

Price problem

Price may be one reason. Both retail and wholesale fish sellers expect wild
salmon prices to take a big jump this year. Demand is phenomenal because of
the alarms about farmed salmon, along with the national health imperative to
eat more fish and the high-protein craze.

Right now, with only a few wild salmon coming in from Oregon and Alaska,
prices of $14-$16 a pound aren't unusual. As the California season gets into
full swing, prices should drop -- but not to last year's levels. Predictions
are that prices will be $2.50 to $3.50 a pound more this year.

For Jerry Ver Brugge, as well as Drewes and other markets, that means
carrying cheaper alternatives.

"I believe we'll have organic-fed farmed fish throughout the wild season.
What will dictate what will be sold is price," Ver Brugge says.

"I think they're equal in nutritional value, cleanliness, healthiness," he
adds. But "there will be other opinions about that. Oh, yes."
A look at the farms

Here are some of the farming practices for salmon being sold as organic, or
cleaner, in Bay Area markets.

Creative Salmon Co.

Indigenous Pacific king (Chinook) salmon, farmed in Clayoquot Sound, British

Certification: Not certified. British Columbia has no organic standards for
fish. Creative is working with the provincial government to draft organic
rules. Its marketing materials say "organic certification pending."

Feed: Not organic. Feed is fish meal and fish oil screened for PCBs and
other contaminants; organic wheat used as a binder.

Color: Synthetic astaxanthin is added. This is a carotenoid, essential to
salmon's growth; it also gives salmon its pink-orange color.

Density: 25,000 to 30,000 fish per pen; company says that equals 8 kilograms
of fish per cubic meter. For comparison, the industry average is 40 kg/m?;
British organic rules allow 10 kg/m?.

Other: No antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or anti-fouling substances used.

Black Pearl Natural Choice (Martin International)

Atlantic salmon farm-raised in Scotland's Shetland Islands

Certification: Not certified. Owner Dick Martin wants the USDA to adopt
organic rules for fish, so that he can win certification.

Feed: Organic fish meal and grain feed certified by Soil Association, a
British certifying agency.

Color: No pigments added. Color comes from marine creatures used in feed.

Density: 18 kg/m? (industry average is 40 kg/m?; British organic rules allow
10 kg/m?.)

Other: No antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or anti-fouling substances used.

E-mail Carol Ness at