Consumer consciousness has come a long way from the days when “organic” meant a small, grumpy apple with worm spots or impossible-to-find specialty grains sold in bins at the rear of health food stores. The Green movement, increased education about health and agricultural practices, and the undeniable boost of becoming chic have all helped to elevate the demand for organic goods – and not just in the produce aisle. Dairy goods, grains, wines, meat products, clothing, even paper products and inks can carry the “organic” label, certified by dubiously rigorous state- and third-party organizations. This year, over $23 billion worth of organic goods were sold in the U.S. alone.
However, the USDA, the Organic Trade Association, and a variety of environmental and fishery groups are struggling to reach an agreement on how organic certification can be extended to include seafood. With meats, poultry, and dairy products, the primary issue is what the animals themselves eat: is the feed organically grown and processed, or not? Because wild fish, arguably the most healthful and, in a sense, “cleanest” varieties of seafood available on the market, eat wild food in wild waters, they cannot be said to be “organic” in the same way that free-range chickens on organic-feed diets lay “organic” eggs.
Farmed fish, on the other hand, which live in close-quartered pens or tanks, have mushier flesh due to a lack of wild-water exercise, and are usually genetically similar to one another (and therefore more susceptible to disease), do not find food on their own. Rather, they are fed by their “farmers,” and so, in some cases, could potentially be called “organic” according to the conditions set as precedent by other meat industries. This would hold true for vegetarian fish only, of course, such as tilapia or catfish. Carnivorous fish, like salmon, couldn’t be categorized as “organic” under these rules unless the fish they ate had in turn been farmed and fed organic feed.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has recently issued a recommendation claiming that certain feeds and net pens be included under the definition of organic foods. This decision was lauded by fish farmers eager to capitalize on the public demand for organic products, but has been severely criticized by fisheries, consumer activists, and environmental groups looking to support wild fisheries and maintain the purity of the organic label. Other issues include leniency in the recommendations regarding the percentage of organic matter included in the feeds – other industries are required to use 100% organic feed materials, while this would not necessarily apply to the fish standards. While no official decision has yet been made on the issue, the USDA is taking it under consideration; finalizing the standards could take a few more years.