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Free or Farmed, When Is a Fish Really Organic?

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Buying a pork chop labeled   organic  is relatively straightforward: it comes from a pig that ate only organic food, roamed outdoors from time to time and was left free of antibiotics

But what makes a fish organic?

That is a question troubling the Agriculture Department, which decides such things. The answer could determine whether Americans will be able to add fish to the growing list of organic foods they are buying, and whether fish farmers will be able to tap into that trend and the profits that go with it.

Organic foods, which many people believe to be more healthful (though others scoff), are grown on farms that shun chemicals and synthetic fertilizers and that meet certain government standards for safeguarding the environment and animals.

An organic tomato must flourish without conventional pesticides; an organic chicken cannot be fed antibiotics. Food marketers can use terms like “natural” and “free range” with some wiggle room, but only the Agriculture Department can sanction the “organic” label.

To the dismay of some fishermen — including many in the Alaskan salmon industry — this means that wild fish, whose living conditions are not controlled, are not likely to make the grade. And that has led to a lot of bafflement, since wild fish tend to swim in pristine waters and are favored by fish lovers.

“If you can’t call a wild Alaska salmon true and organic,” asked Senator Lisa Murkowski,a Republican from Alaska, “what can you call organic?”

Instead, it appears that only farm-raised salmon may pass muster, as may a good number of other farm-raised fish — much to the delight of fish farmers.

But a proposed guideline at the Agriculture Department for calling certain farmed fish “organic” is controversial on all sides. Environmentalists argue that many farm-raised fish live in cramped nets in conditions that can pollute the water, and that calling them organic is a perversion of the label. Those who catch and sell wild fish say that their products should be called organic and worry that if they are not, fish farmers will gain a huge leg up.

Even among people who favor the designation of farmed fish as organic, there are disputes over which types of fish should be included.

Trying to define what makes a fish organic  is a strange concept,  said George H. Leonard, science manager for the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers a consumer guide to picking seafood.   The more you look at it, particularly for particular kinds of fish, it gets even stranger.

The issue comes down largely to what a fish eats, and whether the fish can be fed an organic diet. There is broad agreement that the organic label is no problem for fish that are primarily vegetarians, like catfish and tilapia, because organic feed is available (though expensive).

Fish that are carnivores   salmon, for instance    are a different matter because they eat other fish, which cannot now be labeled organic.

The Agriculture Department panel that recommended adding farmed fish to the organic roster was willing to work around the issue, and offered various ways that fish-eating fish could qualify.

But those work-arounds have infuriated some environmentalists, who take issue with the idea that a fish could be called organic if it ate meal made from wild nonorganic fish. This constituency complains, among other things, that demand for fish meal is depleting wild fisheries.

When it comes to carnivorous fish, it seems to be a complete deception of what organic means,  said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign, an advocacy group working to improve conditions for farm-raised fish.   Organic is supposed to be on 100 percent organic feed.

As the purists balk, the market for organic foods grows. Consumer sales reached $13.8 billion in 2005 compared with $3.6 billion in 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association. What started as a farming technique for crops has expanded into everything from processed foods to flowers and cosmetics. There was even a federal task force to evaluate organic pet food.

Fish farmers and retailers are painfully aware of what they are missing, and some of them are taking matters into their own hands. As things stand, a limited amount of seafood is being sold as organic at stores in the United States, usually because it was certified by other countries or by third-party accreditation agencies.

A company in Florida called OceanBoy Farms is selling what it says are organic shrimp to Wal-Mart, Costco and some other retailers. And at the Lobster Place, a seafood store in Manhattan,   organic   king salmon from New Zealand is offered for $13.50 a pound, compared with $22.95 for wild king salmon and $9.95 for farm-raised salmon.
Should wild fish receive an organic label? Or should it be reserved for farm-raised fish?

People will go for organic salmon when wild king salmon isn’t available,   said Todd Harding, director of wholesale operations for the Lobster Place. He said that the taste of organic salmon was more consistent, but that he generally preferred wild salmon.

While most consumers say they prefer wild-caught fish, 72 percent would buy organic fish at least some of the time, according to a recent survey by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and Rutgers.

If the Agriculture Department ultimately approves organic fish, it would certainly complicate the debate about what types of seafood are best in terms of taste, nutrition, price and environmental impact. Farm-raised? Wild-caught? Or farm-raised organic?

There is plenty of history to the debate. In 2000, when the Agriculture Department sought to weed out some of the food industry’s murkier organic claims, it named a task force to evaluate requests from fish farmers for organic eligibility.

The farmers argued, then as now, that with demand for seafood growing and many wild fisheries being depleted, farm-raised seafood should have a competitive edge. On farms, they said, the number of fish remains stable, and the quality of water and feed are controlled.

One thing the task force did was rule out the possibility that wild fish could be labeled organic.

It takes some thinking about,  said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense, who was on the advisory panel.   What it comes down to is organic is about agriculture, and catching wild animals isn’t agriculture.

The task force recommended that farm-raised fish could be labeled organic as long as their diets were almost entirely organic plant feed.

The Agriculture Department shelved those recommendations and let the issue lie fallow. In 2005 a second task force was convened — this time, with more members affiliated with the aquaculture industry.

This year, the group recommended far less stringent rules, including three options for what organic fish could eat: an entirely organic diet; nonorganic fish during a seven-year transition period while fish farms shift to organic fish meal; or nonorganic fish meal from   sustainable  fisheries. Sustainable fisheries are those that ensure that their fish stocks do not become depleted.

Even if the recommendations are adopted, it will still take several years before U.S.D.A.-certified organic fish appears in stores or restaurants. But domestic fish farmers say that new rules cannot come soon enough. While the aquaculture industry has experienced rapid growth, the vast majority of it has been overseas    mainly in China   and much of the growth in seafood sales in the United States, which had a wholesale value of $29.2 billion in 2004, has come from imports.

Rodger May, a Seattle businessman who sells wild and farm-raised salmon, is preparing for the day when he can sell his fish as organic. For now he refers to some of his farm-raised salmon  which live in ocean pens, as opposed to man-made ponds    as   natural,  a designation that does not carry the same marketing punch as would   organic.

Mr. May says he believes that he has created the perfect environment for organic fish. His  natural   fish are raised in pens that hold fewer fish than those for his regular farm-raised salmon, and they live in a body of water where fast-moving currents constantly provide fresh water and flush away waste.

His fish eat a mixture of oily brown pellets that resemble dog food and contain protein in the form of ground-up fish; other farm-raised salmon are fed protein from chicken and other land animals, he said.

How can a wild fish be cleaner than one of these?   he asked.    What can be more organic than something that comes out of the sea, that has no chemicals near it, no antibiotics and is fed fish?

The Agriculture Department may ultimately agree with Mr. May. But even if it does, it could then face another round of difficult questions. For instance, what is an organic clam? An oyster? A scallop?

“How do you make conventional mollusk production different from organic mollusk production?” asked Ms. Goldburg, the Agriculture Department panelist, who noted that mollusks filter water for food. They are all just sucking up water. Is it cleaner water.

Source:  The New York Times