WASHINGTON - For the first time, a federal advisory board has
approved criteria that clear the way for farmed fish to be labeled
"organic," a move that pleased aquaculture producers even as it angered
environmentalists and consumer advocates.
The question of whether
farmed fish could be labeled organic - especially carnivorous species
such as salmon that live in open-ocean net pens and consume vast
amounts of smaller fish - has vexed scientists and federal regulators
for years. The standards approved Wednesday by the National Organic
Standards Board would allow organic fish farmers to use wild fish as
part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25 percent of the
total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden, that have
declined sharply as the demand for farmed fish has skyrocketed.
maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of defining
what's organic," said Wally Stevens, executive director of the Global
Aquaculture Alliance. "The challenge is to figure out how we can
produce a healthy protein product with a proper regard to where the
feed comes from."
Environmentalists and consumer advocates
blasted the recommendations, which would serve as the basis for
regulations to be issued by the Agriculture Department. Activists
questioned why up to 25 percent of fish feed could be made up of
nonorganic material, while all other animals certified as organic must
eat 100 percent organic feed. They also noted that open-net pens can
harm the environment by allowing fish waste and disease to pollute the
"What we think is at stake is not just the integrity of a
standard for fish but the whole organic standard and consumer
confidence in it," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the
advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "A huge part of the growth in
organic is driven by people looking for food that comes with assurance.
When you start bending the rules, that's a big risk."
Leonard, a marine ecologist and aquaculture director for the Ocean
Conservancy, said that requiring organic operations to use feed made of
trimmings from sustainable wild-caught fish, such as pollock, or from
organically farmed fish would be better than relying on the small, wild
fish farmers currently use.
"There is a very real risk that the decision could undermine consumers' confidence in the organic label."
US sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007.