Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon)
26 May 2003
fish so far elude ‘organic’ label
E Bayne, Gannett News Service
— Wild fish and organic fish are not the same — at least
for now. However, consumers soon could be told they are despite
a federal panel’s conclusion to the contrary.
to boost a struggling fishing industry by tapping the hot organic
food trend, two Alaska senators slipped a provision into a wartime
spending bill directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to devise
criteria for labeling wild fish and seafood as organic.
USDA advisory board rejected that idea two years ago because no
one knows if fish caught in the wild passed through contaminated
water or ate toxins potentially harmful to humans. A major retailer
of organic foods, Whole Foods Market, considers the idea of organic
wild fish “totally ludicrous.”
Goldburg, a member of USDA’s organic advisory board, said
organic standards for wild-caught fish and seafood “just don’t
mesh coherently with existing standards.”
board decided that under certain circumstances, fish raised in aquatic
farms might qualify as organic if growers limit use of antibiotics
and nonorganic feed. USDA still is developing those standards.
doesn’t make sense to Alaska Republican Sens. Ted Stevens
and Lisa Murkowski.
seemed incongruous to us that farmed salmon could be labeled as
organic when something as natural as wild salmon was not,”
intent of their provision was to make sure wild fish is eligible
for organic status and to instruct the Agriculture Department to
come up with guidelines for the labeling.
was our intent that this would not merely be a suggestion,”
U.S. fishing industry is dependent on fluctuating, seasonal supplies
of wild stock and is battling competition from foreign imports and
cheaper farm-raised fish available year-round. In Alaska, wild fish
means wild salmon, a fish that is facing competition from farm-raised
Atlantic salmon from Chile.
market studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay as much
as a third more for organic foods. Although the organic food remains
less than 10 percent of the overall food market, it is the fastest-growing
part. Organic food sales are expected to hit $20 billion by 2005,
double the sales in 2001.
to market wild U.S. salmon is a plus,” said Cassandra Wright,
co-owner of Vis Seafoods in Bellingham, Wash. She has tried to educate
buyers about the benefits of wild salmon — a better taste
and natural pink color.
worries, though, that the price premium organic foods can fetch
“might push wild fish prices out of the market.”
is a price limit people will spend on salmon before they turn up
their noses,” Wright said.
has tried marketing its salmon by touting it as wild instead of
farm-raised, like most Atlantic salmon. Unfortunately, “people
don’t know what wild fish is,” Murkowski said. “People
know what organic is, or at least they think they know what it is.”
is a recognized market claim about the wholesomeness of your product.
Consumers recognize that,” said Justin LeBlanc, vice president
of governmental affairs for National Fisheries Institute. The institute
represents the commercial fishermen, processors, retailers and fish
said the institute wants to talk with USDA officials as they develop
organic standards. In some cases, testing wild fish for toxins might
make sense, he said.
recent years, medical and environmental groups have warned pregnant
women and young children to limit their fish consumption because
some species have high concentrations of heavy metals such as mercury
in sharks, swordfish and king mackerel.
fact makes the idea of organic wild fish “totally ludicrous,”
said Margaret Wittenberg, a vice president for Whole Foods, the
largest U.S. seller of organic and natural foods.
said her company would be skeptical of organic standards for wild
fish and seafood because of the political maneuvering by Murkowski
and Stevens, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
would be something mandated to the USDA,” Wittenberg said.
Laird, vice president of wild salmon processor Prime Select Seafoods,
knows the power of Whole Foods’ disapproval.
most of 2000, Laird’s Cordova, Alaska, company marketed its
salmon and halibut as organic under certification by the private
Organic Growers and Buyers Association. That ended once USDA gained
authority to issue federal standards.
consumer really wanted the product, but Whole Foods and others refused
to carry it,” Laird said. “To be organic, it turns out
you need 100 percent human intervention (in the process).”
would be wary of a new organic status for wild fish.
would certainly look at it, but we wouldn’t jump into it until
the dust settled,” she said. “It’s not going to
be our savior, but we do know the demand is out there.”