Just about everything has an organic counterpart. Except seafood.
In its simplest form, the problem is that humans are much more adept at regulating conditions on land. They're able to take steps that keep pesticides off of agricultural crops, or keep beef cows from wandering away from organically certified pastures.
In the wide-open depths of the ocean, however, the rules are different. Man is just a visitor, and has little or no mastery over what goes on. Aquatic "farms" operating well inland offer better controls over breeding, feeding and harvesting of fish and shellfish in closed lagoons. But even here, farmers haven't been able to reduce a number of variables -- pesticide runoff among them -- that concern federal regulators. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to include certification guidelines for fish and seafood in the National Organic Program.
Standards are also being delayed in part by the ongoing debate within the industry regarding wild-caught seafood, and whether it naturally qualifies as organic. Currently, virtually all products certified organic by organizations outside the United States are aquacultured species.
"I think there might be interest [in organic seafood], but I think the definition of organic vs. wild-caught would have to be defined first," said Paul Schmidt, director of merchandising at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, the leading natural food retailer in the region. "Then I would have a better idea of how our customers would respond."
Executives at Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, have also taken a stand regarding the inclusion of wild-caught fish and seafood under the organic umbrella. In a prepared statement, the retailer states that a lack of controlled growing conditions should qualify wild-caught for the organic moniker. The statement also points out that wild-caught proponents already have the Marine Stewardship Council's Fish Forever label to use as a marketing tool touting sustainability, a companion concern that shoppers often weigh in purchasing seafood from supermarkets or restaurants.
Many in the food industry feel seafood's exclusion is a shame because it would seem that seafood and organics are a perfect match, and a marketer's dream. Except for adverse publicity regarding mercury levels in certain species, evidence of the healthfulness of fresh seafood continues to mount. The category dovetails nicely into a health and wellness lifestyle exhorting simple, clean foods full of nutrients.
The USDA understands the desire consumers have for organic seafood, and has gone so far as to convene a task force to review whether standards for organic fish or seafood are possible. Until the panel makes its recommendations, however, the category is left on its own, carrying one-half of a health message that could really set sales jumping.
"If the USDA certifies seafood as organic, and there is a documented process, then our customers would be interested," said Dave Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, Mill Valley, Calif.
Bennett's opinion is shared by other operators who see consumers' growing acceptance of, and interest in, organics as perhaps one of the best ways to reinvigorate falling sales in supermarkets. As prices throughout organic categories begin to moderate, the desire to add seafood to the list of options is becoming more pronounced. Still, not many operators are willing to go out on their own, even though alternatives to USDA certification exist.
"Using the singular USDA system for labeling organics is being used for a good reason," said Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director, Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio. "There is confusion because of all the other certification groups. While some are legitimate, there is the potential for other groups not to be."
He's also afraid that the level of confusion and suspicion may rise to the point where a customer's faith in the entire system may be compromised.
"As a retailer, you don't want to give the wrong message to your customers," Gridley continued. "We may want to carry and sell organic seafood. But right now, having all the various certifications being used to label it simply muddies the waters."
Official certification is one issue; availability and pricing are another. If and when organic fish and seafood is approved, operators believe that sales could potentially mirror that of organic beef and poultry. They are small players in the meat case, hobbled by premiums out of reach for many consumers, but they are among the fastest-growing categories in supermarkets. Could the same thing happen with seafood?
"The trend toward organic is accelerating, but I think the level of customer interest will be determined by price," said Gilbert Hester, meat category manager, Earth Fare, Asheville, N.C. "Also, the perception customers have about farm-raised seafood currently is not good. [Acceptance] will also be affected by the standards that are used to determine what makes seafood organic."
Eager to take advantage of the existing momentum, some seafood marketers have chosen not to wait for USDA certification guidelines and instead have looked elsewhere for standards. The options include buying from offshore producers certified by European agencies, or selecting suppliers that label products organic based on standards established by independent testing labs.
Earth Fare, a 13-unit natural-oriented operator, is one chain that offers organic seafood if and when it is available. Currently in the case is a single shrimp item, marketed by EcoFish, Dover, N.H., a sustainable species supplier founded in 1999. The shrimp are raised in Florida, in an aquaculture facility that includes freshwater ponds fed by underground aquifers. The farm is located far from the ocean, and the water is filtered and recirculated, in an effort to avoid the habitat destruction and pollution normally associated with shrimp farming around the world. The farm grows its own organic tilapia to feed the shrimp an all-natural diet that is hormone-, chemical- and antibiotic-free.
By now, the story of the shrimp farm, operated by OceanBoy Farms in Clewiston, Fla., is well known. Executives used organic livestock standards to submit an application to the USDA, which after a review, approved the shrimp last year for the official green seal. The agency soon reversed itself, and red-faced officials conceded the product should not have been certified. As a result, OceanBoy sought certifications from a third party. In this case, the green seal was replaced by a logo from Quality Certification Services, Gainesville, Fla., an independent testing firm. Ironically, it is also an approved, third-party certifier for the USDA.
According to Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish, when USDA standards are set, OceanBoy Farms will "pass the USDA standards and exceed them."
He said the whole episode underscores the need for standards to be set as soon as possible as consumers look for cleaner foods.
"The steps California took are justified," said Lovejoy, referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent signing of a bill that effectively halts any organic labeling of fish and seafood in the state. The ban is intended to be lifted when the USDA or California establish certification standards covering fish and seafood.
Some aquaculture growers have looked to European certification agencies. One such entity is Naturland Zeichen GmbH, a German firm operating the Naturland Association, a nonprofit group that claims 38,000 members in 25 countries. Naturland Association certifies using both organic and free-trade standards in a variety of commodities including coffee, tea, cocoa, fruit, vegetables and shrimp. Currently, nine white shrimp farms are certified and able to use the Naturland seal. Eight of these farms are in Ecuador.
Bio Suisse is another Euro-based certification group that binds organic farmers into an association providing certification and marketing support.
Dorothy Lane's Gridley said that, for now, U.S. consumers seem to have adopted an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude.
"Our customers are not asking for organic seafood," he said.
The Mercury Question
Today's seafood counter tells many stories, some good and others not so swell. Besides organic certification and heart-healthy omega-3s, consumers have questions about about mercury and PCBs in some popular species, as well as aquaculture's impact on the environment. The organic message is just one fish in a much larger school of concerns.
"In my market, organic is not the big issue when it comes to seafood," said Dave Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's, Mill Valley, Calif. "For our customers, organic fish is not an issue. Topics that become an issue are generally raised by the media."
One of those matters concerns the mercury content found in shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish. In California, retailers have been ordered to post warning signs at points of purchase, or face action by the state attorney general's office. The warnings are to specify that the mercury levels found in finfish pose a risk to women of childbearing age, pregnant women and children.
Albany, Calif.-based Andronico's was one operator posting the warning signs prior to the attorney general's directive being handed down, said Reed Pomerantz, seafood buyer. "We want to always have the best relations with our customers. Our responsibility to our customers is key to the operations of our company. We decided to stay ahead of the curve."
Use informal discussions, focus groups or shopper surveys to determine if customers are even interested in the idea of organic seafood.
Thoroughly research the standards and criteria used by alternative certification agencies, whether in the United States or Europe.
Introduce marketing materials prior to introduction that build anticipation, while relaying a clear explanation of certification criteria.