As the USDA slowly develops its organic aquaculture standards, many shoppers are looking beyond — to sustainability certification
Farmed and wild seafood are one of the only remaining fresh food categories that can't use the official USDA Organic seal, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture still has not developed standards for organic seafood. The delay has been caused by a couple of contentious debates.
Most, if not all, international organic seafood programs will only certify aquaculture operations, where a fish's diet and living conditions can be monitored and controlled. Similarly, at a 2001 meeting, the USDA's National Organic Standards Board determined that organic certification is not appropriate for wild aquatic animals. Here, the finer points of the debate emerge. Are open net pen systems acceptable, or, as opponents argue, do they contaminate their surroundings and do too much harm to wild fish populations to be considered organic? And how can organic aquaculture operations ensure that the diet they feed their stock is also considered organic?
The NOSB seems to be getting closer to answering those questions, although the decisions are far from final. Notably, in March 2007, the NOSB made a formal recommendation to the National Organic Program covering the farmed production of finfish and shrimp. The recommendation proposes detailed standards regarding the production, harvest, transport and slaughter of these animals and is based on the report provided to the NOSB by the Aquaculture Working Group.
The NOSB rejected two sections of the AWG's Interim Final Report, and did not include them in its recommendation to the NOP; however, nothing is finalized yet.
“The NOSB rejected non-organic fish meal and fish oil as sources of fish feed, essentially excluding the organic production of carnivorous fish — for example, salmon, tuna and swordfish,” Joan Shaffer, spokeswoman for the NOSB, told SN.
“Only the production of fish and shrimp that can be sustained on a vegetarian diet are included in the NOSB's recommendation. These would include tilapia and catfish.”
The use of open net pens was also rejected by the NOSB and is not included in its March recommendation to the NOP.
The NOSB hosted an organic aquaculture symposium at its November 2007 meeting, and will use information presented there to continue consideration of the fish meal, fish oil and net pen issues. The NOSB hopes to provide the NOP with a revised recommendation at its spring meeting, which will be held on May 20-22.
“We're kind of still at that position of concern on those two issues, because we don't have final rules, and [with] any food regulation, it's not over until it's over,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director, Food and Water Watch, Washington.
Lovera added that she believes that allowing open net pens and wild fish feed for organic aquaculture products would leave the industry with far too weak of a standard.
“We believe that the negative environmental impacts of open net pen aquaculture are inherently incompatible with the goal of organic production to minimize environmental impact,” Lovera said. “We have similar concerns about using wild fish oil and fish meal for food at aquaculture facilities.”
Food and Water Watch's website states that feed derived from wild fish contributes to the decline of wild fish populations and can contain high levels of contaminants such as PCBs.
The wait has been a frustrating one for seafood department managers. The healthy, clean and environmentally friendly perception that the Organic seal brings to produce, dairy, meats and other categories could be a boon for seafood departments. And, many consumers are still confused by other terminology applied to seafood, such as “wild,” “farmed” and “sustainable,” according to Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“[Consumers] are just starting to sort out what organic means in regard to other product categories,” she said. “And so, for example, what we see in the meat category is that consumers might not really be sure about what the difference is between organic and local — all they know is that they want their meat to be growth-hormone- and antibiotic-free. So, that's how they're defining what they're seeking in that category,” Demeritt said.
With seafood, there's much more confusion.
“What we found in the past is that there's a lot of confusion around how the attributes of wild, organic and farmed … intermingle and intermix, so when you start talking about organic, some consumers are saying, ‘Well, wouldn't organic be wild?’ or ‘Is wild organic?’ It's really complex, and there is a great lack of understanding right now with how those things would interplay with one another.”
One effective way to educate consumers is through telling them the narrative of how a product was raised, where it came from, and who the producers behind the product are.
“Talking about those narratives connects emotionally to consumers, gets their interest,” Demeritt said.
“Ideally, [the story is] being told by the people who are growing the products themselves — but if that's not possible, have store employees that can talk about that narrative. The human interaction is really important. And in lieu of that, obviously using other marketing materials — but we definitely know that the human interaction, whether it's the producers or the growers, that's really what the consumers remember, take with them and tell all their friends about as well.”
Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, Iowa City, Iowa, agreed.
“Our member stores do excellent work in helping their customers understand where and how producers provided their seafood. Storytelling is key,” Shrader told SN.
“For example, the Outpost Co-op in Milwaukee sells wild-caught seafood and labels it with case signage. They've done education around the fisherman, specifically for their salmon. They also sell some farmed fish from sustainable fish farms, and in doing so provide signage to educate consumers on ecological fish farming.”
Similarly, the Davis Food Co-op, Davis, Calif., partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch to educate consumers about better seafood sources. The co-op also works with Seafood Watch through its FishWise program to connect with vendors of sustainable seafood choices, and it labels every product with the level of the sustainability of the harvest and information on how the seafood was harvested or farmed, according to Shrader.
PCC Natural Markets also maintains a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and the Seattle Aquarium that helps it educate shoppers about what it means to buy seafood caught or farmed in a way that supports healthy aquaculture, according to Diana Crane, spokeswoman for the Seattle-based natural food cooperative.
“Our customers are well informed about our Sustainable Seafood program through printed materials, articles in our member newspaper, our website and our trained meat and seafood coordinators, and they trust us to adhere to USDA standards and to not label any product as ‘organic’ that isn't certified as such,” Crane said.
Status of Standards
Despite the confusion and concerns, organic seafood is, of course, already available in the marketplace. Suppliers can still use the word “organic” to label seafood, even though they cannot use the USDA Certified Organic seal. Certifiers in other countries, primarily Europe, offer organic labels to products that meet their standards, but many consumer groups and industry organizations said they believe that selling these products to U.S. shoppers can be misleading.
“PCC Natural Markets is aware of consumer confusion regarding seafood products that bear the misleading label of ‘organic,’” said Crane. Currently, she said, the co-op and its members are more focused on sourcing seafood from fishermen and processors that are proven to be pursuing sustainable practices — from fished or farmed sources that can exist for the long term, without compromising a species' survival or the integrity of surrounding ecosystems.
“As a Certified Organic Retailer, we have followed the progress of the National Organic Standards Board of the USDA in developing standards for organic seafood, and will only use the USDA Organic label on seafood products that meet the final standards,” Crane added.
Other experts agreed, noting that these foreign organic labels could give consumers the wrong idea.
“We feel that allowing imported fish to be labeled as organic is misleading to consumers, since there is no U.S. standard for organic certification,” said Lovera. “There is obvious consumer demand for organic food in general, but that is in large part because of the credibility of the organic standards.”
“Consumers trust that the Organic seal tells them that rigorous standards were followed when that food was produced. The production practices have to meet the Organic standards; the standards shouldn't be lowered to meet the production.”
The NCGA was among 43 organizations consisting of consumers, organic farmers and consumer and environmental advocates that signed a letter to the NOSB expressing concerns over the integrity of the standards.
According to Shrader, the NCGA and its store members believe it is important that consumers understand the labels and the various other seafood claims that are out there, what they mean or don't mean, and why each store member may have adopted a product policy related to seafood.
“That's because it's important to enforce the integrity of the U.S. Organic food label by preventing the misleading practice of labeling seafood — domestic or imported — as ‘organic,’” Shrader told SN.
“Until these standards are released, it's important to prevent consumer deception by enforcing existing organic labeling laws and regulations.”