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Fish Food Fight- Can Salmon Be Organic?

Posted by Jane Akre
Friday, November 14, 2008 11:57 AM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Omega-3, Heart Disease, Food Safety, Industrialized Agriculture, Organic Food, Factory Farming, Living Well, Salmon

USDA considering changes to salmon allowing it to be organic, that is creating great controversy



IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons/ David Warnberg in Alaska with wild chum salmon/ author: Jack Roberts


Connoisseurs of health often turn to the Omega-3 oils in salmon to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, enhance mood, and decrease inflammation.

And food connoisseurs have long suspected that wild Alaskan salmon, with its rich, magenta pink color that comes from living naturally, is superior to its cousin that comes from conventional, industrialized fish farms.

All of that could change very soon.

The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will meet November 17 - 19 to consider final changes to the organic standards that may allow farmed salmon to be considered USDA certified “organic” - the gold standard for food safety and purity.

44 groups including, Consumers Union, Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water, among others have sent a letter objecting to the move by the (NOSB) arguing that to do so would weaken USDA standards.

“Attempting to define organic standards for open net pens and wild fish as feed is like attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole – the principles and the practices are simply incompatible,” say the organizations in a November 1 letter.

Iain Tolhurst, a highly respected organic grower and a key figure in the foundation of the modern British organic movement tells The Guardian:   “If the public was given the full facts about organic salmon, they would demand something better. So-called "organic" salmon is making a mockery of organic standards.'


What is Organic Salmon?

“Organic” fish are occasionally sold and marketed in the U.S. and are farmed from British Columbia and Scotland in floating ocean pens. They are generally cleaner than conventionally grown farmed salmon which may see 70,000 fish swimming amid sea leech, feces strewn floating pens.

So-called "organically grown salmon" may see half of those numbers, they sometimes get better food, but they can also receive pigment to enhance their color.  

They are generally not given antibiotics or hormones, but with the variables that exist in ocean suspended pens and no USDA oversight which covers land-based crops and meat, the organic fish industry is largely regulating itself.

George Kimbrell, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety in Washington D.C. says the proposal, being pushed by the U.S. Department of Commerce at the behest of the aquaculture industry, is a bad one.    

“The reason the National Organic Standards Board is under pressure to okay organic salmon is money,” he tells IB News.  “The push is from the aquaculture industry, that is basically the water version of factory farming. “

Factor farming of cattle and chicken translates to industrialized agriculture where the push is large numbers of animals, mass produced to keep production up and cost down.

In fish, PCBs, dioxin, antibiotics  and other contaminants have been found to contaminate farm-raised salmon. Chemicals used to clean in open net pens are often marine pollutants.

Farmed salmon contains some omega-3s but are lower in protein and higher in saturated fat than wild salmon, according to Dr. Andrew Weill.

Consumers Union and other groups believe the integrity of the organic label is at stake. The proposal by the aquaculture industry include:

  • Allowing fish to be fed food other than 100 % organic which may carry mercury and PCBs
  • Open net cages which flush pollution, disease and parasites directly into the ocean making these farms less than “sustainable”

Kimbrell says antibiotics would be allowed in “organic salmon” but would have to be monitored.

“Currently it’s in feed in the open water called net farming. They are like floating farms in the ocean and they count on dilution.”

Farmers would not be allowed to use pink color enhancement currently used to make the pale farmed-salmon cousin look like its Alaskan counterpart that dines on pink crustaceans in the wild.  Chemicals could not be used to clean the farmed salmon’s pens, but all of those new rules are up for discussion.   

While consumer groups recognize the organic aquaculture industry has made strides toward cleaner production, the Pure Salmon Campaign asks that the “USDA Organic” standard not be diluted or modified to accommodate the Aquaculture industry. 

“It is our hope that the organic label will continue to provide consumers with a clear and consistent understanding of how their food is produced and ensure them that their choice of an organic food product supports a safer, more humane more sustainable environment.”

Kimbrell says altering the National Organic Standard to create an “organic” salmon will just create confusion for consumers.

“There is going to be a lot of marketplace confusion. Are they getting wild salmon if it’s farmed?  It treats fish like livestock.”

Naturally, Alaskan fishermen who provide wild salmon are not happy with this new type of salmon. They would like their wild-caught salmon to be called organic. But so far the USDA isn’t biting.  

The Green Guide newsletter suggests when fresh, wild salmon is not available, “look for healthier, more environmentally friendly and better tasting alternatives to organic salmon by trying other species such as herring and sardines, both fish high in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Or try canned wild salmon.”   # 

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