Politics of the Plate: When Organic Is Not Organic

USDA certified organic fish doesn’t exist—but you wouldn’t necessarily know it to read the labels at a seafood counter.
usda organic

The winner of the Best Overall Organic Retail award at the All Things Organic trade show, held last week in Chicago, was a British company called Organic Smokehouse. There was only one problem: The firm’s Elderflower Cured Gravadlax (another spelling for gravlaks, or cured salmon) wasn’t organic, at least not by USDA standards.

There is no such thing as USDA certified organic fish. Since 2001, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the body that advises the USDA on matters related to certification, has been trying to set standards for aquaculture. Last fall, it issued a set of guidelines, but the USDA has yet to enact them.

One possible reason is that the recommendations were blasted by more than 40 consumer and environmental groups, who were particularly adamant that carnivorous fish raised in net pens—such as the salmon that become Organic Smokehouse’s gravlaks—should not, under any circumstances, be eligible for USDA certification. Net pens pollute surrounding waters and are vectors for diseases that affect wild fish; moreover, salmon are fed a diet containing wild fish, which under the USDA’s rules cannot, by definition, be organic.

Meanwhile, there is a large loophole in the USDA’s policy. Lacking its own organic standards for aquaculture, the administration nonetheless allows seafood certified by foreign agencies to be labeled as organic. The prize-winning cured salmon is certified as organic by the U.K.’s Soil Association, which doesn’t see any problem with net pens or using wild fish as feed.

Given the current controversy about corporations trying to dilute the meaning of organic, I suggest that the Organic Trade Association, the American industry group behind All Things Organic, consider limiting its accolades to products that are USDA certified, or at very least changing the name of the award to Best Overall Not-So-Organic Retail.

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