Something's fishy about "organic salmon" | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Something's fishy about "organic salmon" 

Well, that label does stand for at least one thing: increased profit margins.

I've been thinking about OFPA and its two offspring NOP and NOSB, its distant cousin IFOAM, not to mention NOAWG and the AATF Interim Final Report. And I've been thinking a lot about fish mongering.

What prompted this excess of acronymic assessment was hearing that something fishy, labeled "organic salmon," was available at Harris Teeter. So, now you can guess: The "O"'s lurking in those acronyms stand for "Organic." What you might not be able to guess is the "organic" in "organic salmon" doesn't stand for anything. Because there's no such thing.

Well, that label does stand for at least one thing: increased profit margins. Pronounced FFFMMM, it approximates the sound of your wallet deflating. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA to its intimates) was, in many ways, but not all, a wild success. Although it took over a decade for the USDA (that would be the United States Department of Agriculture) to issue rules for the use of food descriptions involving "organic," the result was a pretty thorough final rule. Effective October 2002, products certifiably adhering to the rule may display the USDA organic seal.

Consumers trust the seal. They are also willing to pay a premium for organic products. Some of this trust was earned when environmental and organic farming groups organized a massive letter-writing campaign against the USDA's attempt to allow, for instance, sewer sludge as an "organic soil treatment." The campaign worked. So the final rule was pretty good. Although "final" means: Don't turn your back on the USDA.

With real money at play and stupendous rates of growth in the organic market, big players in agri-business have become intensely interested in becoming big players in orga-business. Already most of the organic milk sold in the United States comes from factory farms that stretch (and sometimes break) the final rule. And agri-business, in conjunction with its friends at USDA and in the U.S. Senate, have been watering down (well, solventing down) various aspects of the Final Rule.



So how does this relate to "organic salmon"? Well, farmed fish can be a problem because of ecological and health concerns. The populations of many wild fish are crashing like the stock market on Black Tuesday. And then there's the well-publicized presence of accumulated toxins at the top of the piscatory food chain--that's your tuna and swordfish and salmon. Worried consumers are a marvelous marketing opportunity. Enter, flopping slightly, the organic salmon. If only there were such a thing.

Back when the final rule was written, seafood was left out. Writing rules for certifying organic products is not simple, even without the clashing interests of the various "stakeholders." Being organic is a cradle to grave (and beyond) process. Perhaps you've noticed the separate "organic-only" scoops for herbs at the bulk herb counter? No last-minute contamination allowed! Similarly, the rules for organic coffee extend post-roast, requiring strict separation from non-organic as well as traceability almost back to the tree. Back at the cradle end are specifications for where the seedlings or calves or poults come from. Most crucial is the issue of feed. Indeed, producers hoping to get their product certified need to have an "organic system plan" that details all aspects of production; a plan that must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality.

You can begin to see why the authors of the final rule slid past the fish issue. How can you create a plan for maintaining or improving the natural resources of the "site"? It's a big ocean out there. Worse, there is no way to certify the "feed" as organic. So, although the final rule managed to define "livestock" as inclusive of fish, no protocol for fish was promulgated.

So, cue the acronyms. The NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) constituted a new committee, the Aquatic Animal Task Force. NOSB is the independent advisory board that the NOP (National Organic Program) arm of USDA is required to utilize in setting standards for the organic label. And, NOSB has representatives from environmental groups as well as academe and industry. The task force produced a report (www.fw.umn.edu/isees/OrganicAquaculture/TskFrcRec5.01.doc) back in May 2001.

Certain interested parties didn't like certain implications of the task force's recommendations--because the task force came to two logical conclusions: Wild-caught can't be organic, and rules for acquaculture would have to be so stringent that it would rule out one of the most popular species of farm-raised fish--salmon.



Salmon, like other fish near the top of the food chain, are piscivorous. In aquacultural terms, that means they are fed fishmeal and fish oil. Such feed originates as wild-caught and hence is not organic. (I'm leaving out here the ecological conundrum that it takes three pounds of tiny fish to make one pound of salmon. I'm also leaving out the way in which these aquaculture methods can concentrate various toxins. Oh, and the environmental degradation from massive loads of waste products, pesticides and antibiotics flowing into the ocean. Oh, and the issues of farmed fugitives interbreeding with their wild cousins.)

But the recommendation of the task force that really annoyed some powerful people concerned wild-caught:

"The Task Force concludes that operations that capture wild aquatic animals do not reflect the degree of producer management, continuous oversight, and discretionary decision making that are characteristic of an organic system. The regulated capture of aquatic animals from wild populations is unquestionably a managed system, but it does not afford producers the opportunities to exercise the specific production responsibilities that are required by the OFPA. Producing aquatic animals without violating the livestock origin, feed ration, health care, and living conditions requirements in the OFPA does not make for an organic production system."

Translation from the almost-English: Nothing wild-caught can meet the requirements of OFPA.

And, if you're a political junkie, you'll be delighted to know who one of the most annoyed parties was: U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Ted never just remains annoyed; he abuses the system. And you can just about guess what happened next. One of the many riders attached to the supplemental appropriations bill to fund the war in Iraq in April 2003 was this war-relevant gem (www.fas.org/asmp/resources/govern/108th/hr1559ps.htm):

"Notwithstanding the requirement of section 2107(a)(1)(A) requiring products to be produced only on certified organic farms, the Secretary shall allow, through regulations promulgated after public notice and opportunity for comment, wild seafood to be certified or labeled as organic."

Fortunately, other senators supported a rider to the rider:

"CONSULTATION AND ACCOMMODATION--In carrying out paragraph (1), the Secretary shall (A) consult with (i) the Secretary of Commerce; (ii) the National Organic Standards Board established under section 2119; (iii) producers, processors, and sellers; and (iv) other interested members of the public; and (B) to the maximum extent practicable, accommodate the unique characteristics of the industries in the United States that harvest and process wild seafood."

Which brought NOSB back into the picture. In the meanwhile, various confusing and contradictory rulings from NOP seemed to allow for organic certification of aquacultural operations. They were ultimately all rescinded, and as of October 2005, no seafood product can claim any USDA organic status.

A few perfectly fine aquaculture sites got certified--by extrapolating the rules for terra firma livestock to the watery realm. By "perfectly fine" I mean self-contained,

land-based operations that recycle wastes and water and use organic feed. They are now de-certified.

And, in that very same meantime, various jurisdictions in Europe started certifying some salmon as "organic." I won't bore you with the details (oops, too late), but not only don't they count as organic here, they shouldn't.

Surveys continue to indicate that the terms "wild-caught" or "eco-certified" are far less alluring to health-conscious consumers than "organic." So the pressure to come up with organic rules for fish hasn't abated. And now, the latest taskforce spun out of NOSB has reported back with its Interim Final Report (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/TaskForces/AATFInterimFinalReport.pdf ).

Significantly, the report concerns only aquaculture; so the fraught question of certifying as organic wild-caught fish remains un-adjudicated. As of this writing, the task force on wild catch hasn't checked in. If we're lucky, Ted Stevens will butt out this time.

On the crucial matter of feed, the report finesses the problem by offering Option A and Option B. The essential difference between Option A and Option B is that Option A permits fishmeal made from wild-caught fish to serve as feed. The restrictions are that such fish must be from resources that are sustainably managed and that no more than one pound of fish be used to produce one pound of harvest fish. (The latter restriction is loosened by allowing carcasses, viscera and trimmings from wild-caught fish destined for human consumption to also be used for feed.)

Option B leaves out those feeding options and only permits fishmeal made from organic fish: "Organic aquaculture feeds may include fish meal and oil derived from organically raised aquatic animals, providing the meal and oil is produced from fish of a different genus to the target aquaculture species being fed."

The report envisions Option A as viable only if some sort of organic certification process is put into place for wild-caught.

These problematic options are mostly relevant in the case of piscivorous fish like salmon. Producers raising fish low on the food chain, particularly fresh-water fish raised in ecologically sound ways, are well on the way to certification under whatever new final rule is promulgated. Unfortunately, the big money is not in catfish and trout, but in farm-raised salmon--a fish almost certainly unsuitable for organic production.

Over the next year the usual suspects will be at work to ensure that whatever regulations come forth are weak and favorable to large-scale production. But such attempts have been beaten back before and can be again.

So, how much organic salmon could a fishmonger monger?

  • Well, that label does stand for at least one thing: increased profit margins.

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