Consumer groups object to proposed organic standards for seafood

Pushing your cart through the grocery aisles, it’s difficult not to notice the sheer number of organic products that have hit the shelves in the past decade. With more and more mainstream grocers and food producers hoping to cash in on the wide interest in organic food, the selection has probably never been so good: meats, dairy products, snack items, fruits and vegetables, and grains. You name it, and it’s probably available in an organic version.

Well, almost.

Seafood is notable more for its absence than its strong presence in the organic foods section, but there are those who hope to change that. Increasingly, many US seafood producers are fighting to acquire the organic label, but the problem is that the United States Department of Agriculture has yet to actually produce any guidelines for organic seafood. If they did it for eggs, why can’t they do it for crabs?

It isn’t that easy. Do wild fish, which consume other wild fish, qualify as organic? If the fish they’ve eaten are exposed to mercury or other pollutants, doesn’t that pose a few problems for organic labeling? It gets even more complex.

Many of the species of fish and other aquatic life processors are hoping to label organic are grown on fish farms, or open ocean net pens, which critics insist are unhealthy not only for the seafood in question, but for consumers. According to the organization Food and Water Watch, “Fish wastes, excess food, fish escapes, antibiotics, and various chemicals from fish farms can all result in water pollution and harm surrounding habitats by poisoning wildlife and causing other disturbances.”

Farmed fish grown in crowded conditions are vulnerable to disease, and many growers – like their landlubber counterparts – dish out high levels of antibiotics to keep them “healthy” although use of antibiotics has decreased. Farmed fish are also particularly vulnerable to parasites such as sea lice; wild fish swimming through areas with heavy concentrations of farmed fish are then exposed themselves to disease, wastes, and parasites from the farms. Some producers have even suggested using old off shore oil rigs as anchors for fish farms. It sounds like a nice way to reuse rigs, but the fish are quite possibly exposed to mercury or other wastes from the rigs. Environmentalists object to the idea on additional grounds: such use of oil rigs could very well give oil companies a free ticket to avoid the responsibility of dismantling the rigs once they’re no longer in service.

Next week, the National Organics Standards Board is meeting to discuss standards for organic fish. Consumer groups are very concerned about the proposals which would allow the use of wild fish as food for farmed fish. As the recommendations from the NOSB Proposed Organic Aquaculture Standards suggests:

To ensure that diets are nutritionally complete at the inception of USDA certified organic aquaculture, the NOSB proposes that the carcasses, viscera, and trimmings from wildcaught fish be allowed to provide for fish meal and fish oil in a limited, prescribed fashion. This will allow the nascent USDA certified organic aquaculture industry the needed time to establish a critical mass of basic feed resources for itself. OFPA Section 2107(c)(1) supports this.

Consumers Union, the consumer watchdog group that publishes Consumer Reports, replied rather incredulously, “The board recommends that fish can be labeled ‘organic’ even if they’ve been fed wild fish, which come from polluted environments and are high in mercury and PCBs. Potentially toxic organic fish? That defeats the whole purpose.”

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