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Top Story: Organic matters

The organic seafood movement creates marketplace confusion

By James Wright
April 01, 2007

Many consumers believe that a higher price tag for organic food is justified. Produce and proteins that are grown without chemical fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides are generally thought to be environmentally friendly, healthier or simply safer to eat than conventional food. 
 But when it comes to organic seafood, confusion reigns. That's because according to the federal government there is no such thing - at least not yet. While some seafood products are already being marketed as organic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn't approved standards for organic seafood. That could change later 
this year, however, when the National Organic Standards Board 
is expected to release recommendations to the USDA.

Retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco, Publix and others have committed to offering their customers more organic products and foods from sustainable sources. When federal standards are set, organic seafood and its inherent "eco-virtues" could be the next gold rush for seafood suppliers.

Until then, the federal government requires any producer marketing seafood as organic to be certified by an independent third party. Use of the coveted USDA Organic logo is prohibited on packaging or marketing claims until organic standards for seafood are established. California last year banned the sale of organic seafood until USDA standards are in place; it remains the only state to pass such a law.

But with a U.S. organic-foods market worth $13.8 billion in 2005 and expanding annually at rates of 15 to 21 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., seafood suppliers won't want to be left behind.

"Seafood can experience the same kind of growth as consumers become aware of the ecological consequences of their consumption habits," says Tom Hutcheson, regulatory and policy manager of the OTA.

At the heart of the organic seafood issue is consumer confidence. While U.S. consumers have readily accepted organic beef and poultry in addition to vegetables and other goods, seafood presents a number of complex questions: Can fish feed for carnivorous species like salmon be organic and sustainable? Can pollution and escapes at open-water fish farms be controlled? Can chemical treatments be avoided at all costs?

The task of answering these questions, and ultimately convincing consumers that seafood products deserve organic status, will fall upon a fragmented seafood industry that has long been the target of environmental activists' ire - especially fish farms. "Aquaculture introduces even more parameters that require fundamental ecological decisions," Hutcheson says.

Still, it is a challenge that some suppliers relish.

"I think the public will be quite comfortable buying organic seafood once the USDA has the processes in place," says John Battendieri, president of Blue Horizon Organic Seafood in Aptos, Calif., which imports organic shrimp raised in Ecuador. Naturland in Gräfelfing, Germany, certifies Blue Horizon's shrimp, which is sold to both retail and foodservice customers.

"When we're able to affix the USDA seal, it'll be huge," Battendieri adds. "There's more of an understanding about sustainability when it comes to seafood, and it's evident that aquaculture will play a bigger role in our seafood supplies in the future. It's intuitive that we should have standards to separate those who have food safety and the environment in mind."

 

The ocean blue

About a half-mile off the western shore of Hawaii's Big Island, Kona Blue Water Farms raises sushi-grade kampachi ( Seriola rivoliana ) in six open-ocean cages. The company, founded in 2001 in Kailua-Kona, debuted its trademarked Kona Kampachi at the 2006 International Boston Seafood Show.

Since then it has nearly doubled its production to 10,000 pounds a week of 4- to 6-pound fish that are similar to hamachi, or yellowtail. Kampachi is growing in popularity with upscale restaurants and specialty retailers like Central Market in Texas and Uwajimaya in Seattle.

Kona Blue President Neil Sims speaks of his kampachi like a doting parent, espousing their pristine environment, their gregarious behavior and the strict feed and environmental controls the company has developed. If any fish should 
be considered organic, Sims says, it's kampachi.

But proving it has been difficult for Sims, who testified before 
the NOSB last October on behalf of finfish culture's consideration for organic status. Part of the struggle, he says, is that the aquaculture industry is beset by environmental organizations with the power to influence the public and the government.

"There's a low, background static about seafood with consumers," says Sims. "The hyper-inflated publicity about the dangers of seafood tends to stick with them more than the rational scientific analysis that shows its overwhelming health benefits."

But there are more hurdles to organic seafood standards than just negative publicity. While the NOSB hasn't officially said "no" to any particular species of 
seafood, it hasn't been compelled to say "yes," either. In February, when the NOSB's Livestock Committee voted 6 to 1 to ban fish raised in open-water net pens - like salmon and kampachi - from federal organic seafood standards, it also requested greater involvement from the aquaculture industry, something Sims says is severely lacking. Because NOSB recommendations carry significant weight with the USDA, the Livestock Committee's vote may herald what is to come.

Tilapia, catfish and shrimp - species grown in ponds or controlled and contained facilities - will likely get the green light. But Sims says excluding finfish - which shoulder the burden of farmed salmon's environmental concerns - from organic consideration would be a "lost opportunity."

"There's huge market demand. The industry could set the bar higher; we want it to be something that's challenging to achieve," Sims says. "We never want to lose sight of what organic is supposed to be - better for the planet and better for the consumer."

 

Who's buying it?

A May 2006 report by The Hartman Group, a consulting and market-research firm in Bellevue, Wash., revealed that 75 percent of the U.S. population now buys organic products at least occasionally, up from 55 percent in 2000. The report, "Organic 2006: Consumer Attitudes & Behavior, Five Years Later & Into the Future," states that the core organic consumer, those who buy organic products on a weekly basis, comprises 23 percent of U.S. consumers.

"Organics stand at the heart of many Americans' food aspirations, even those who rarely purchase organics," says Laurie Demeritt, president and COO of The Hartman Group.

At Kings Super Markets, based in Parsippany, N.J., the potential of organic seafood is already being realized. The 26-unit retail chain has carried five seafood varieties certified organic by Naturland and the Organic Food Federation of Norfolk, England, for nearly two years. According to Anthony Ruccio, seafood sales manager for Kings, organic seafood sales from January 2006 to January 2007 increased 300 percent. And, despite a higher price that can be 20 percent more than traditional seafood, Ruccio says that the mindset gap between consumers of organic and conventional products is closing quickly.

"If costs, supply issues and food-safety concerns continue as they have over the past couple of years, the potential [of organic seafood] can be significant," Ruccio says. "There is a segment of consumers that is currently untapped, and although there will be some 'tradeoff,' I think the incremental sales base will definitely increase."

Joseph Sabbagh, president of Sax Maritime Associates, a seafood-industry consulting firm in Los Angeles, has a different prognosis. For seven years in the 1990s, Sabbagh worked as a consultant for Whole Foods, a natural-foods retailer based in Austin, Texas, and he recently completed a two-year consulting stint with Wild Oats, based in Boulder, Colo. Organic seafood did not sell as well as he expected at these stores. And until the USDA can define organic as it pertains to seafood, Sabbagh says it's a "very slippery slope."

"I've been behind the counters, I've heard what customers are saying. There's so much confusion out there already that throwing the organic card at them will just make it worse," says Sabbagh. "The bigger issue is the negative light all fish farming is being put under. The industry would be better off to address those issues instead of moving into the organic world."

In restaurants, where organic claims rarely exceed a simple word on the menu, organic seafood's impact may not be as measurable. At Oleana, an upscale Mediterranean-influenced restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., the menu is dotted with organic vegetables and local seafood like monkfish, scallops and striped bass. Chef/owner Ana Sortun, whose husband grows many of the vegetables served at Oleana in his organic garden (when in season), says that organic has taken on a new meaning.

"For me, the term once meant 'real.' But it's not the same now, it's all about marketing," Sortun says, adding that her food-buying philosophy is based almost entirely on trust - something she feels has been lost with industrial production of organic foods that are distributed over thousands of miles.

"I don't think there's any such thing [as organic seafood]. I wouldn't serve it to jump on any bandwagon," Sortun says. "But if [fish farmers] are doing the right thing, and they have a good product, to me it doesn't matter if it's labeled organic or not."

 

Rattling the cages

Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist for Environmental Defense of New York, has done extensive research on farmed seafood and is a member of the USDA National Organic Program's Aquaculture Working Group. She hopes that organic standards for seafood will be achievable, but believes they will be most rewarding when consumers feel they are of high integrity.

"It's a great opportunity for producers to get a price premium for farmed seafood and to recognize and reward environmental responsibility," she says, adding that wild seafood should not be eligible for organic status (see sidebar), but that farm-raised species like catfish, tilapia and even crayfish may enjoy the greatest market success.

"For those species where there's pretty wide agreement, let's do it now, let's make it work and see whether it's possible," says Goldburg.

Other responses from the environmental community have not been as encouraging. Activist Don Staniford, the European representative for National Environmental Trust's Pure Salmon Campaign, says there's no difference at all between an organic salmon farm and a conventional salmon farm. Among his charges against salmon farms is their alleged use of antibiotics and pesticides to fight off disease and parasitic infestation, their impact of pollution on the surrounding environment and the potential of farmed fish to escape their pens and compete against native species for resources. Organic certification, he says, doesn't address any of those concerns.

"A lot of the criticisms that environmentalists and communities have made [about salmon farms] are also applicable for organic salmon farming. Many stumbling blocks [toward organic certification] may be irresolvable for carnivorous fish," Staniford says, adding that salmon farmers' claims of organic are merely "window dressing."

Staniford caused trouble in June 2005 when he alleged that Creative Salmon, a Tofino, British Columbia, king salmon farm, used malachite green, a banned chemical dye that can be used as a fungicide. Creative Salmon, which aspires to organic certification, claims that it does not use antibiotics, hormones, malachite green or sea lice treatments. After Staniford's allegations of lying and consumer fraud, one fish was tested and was found to have trace amounts of banned substance. While the source of the contamination was not found, the farm had to be temporarily shut down.

In January, the British Columbia Supreme Court found Staniford, who at the time was working for Friends of Clayoquot Sound, guilty of defamation and was ordered to pay about $13,000 in damages; he announced in February that he is appealing the decision.

The battle over information is mainly fought in the media. But even editorial coverage for organic seafood has been rocky. The February 2006 issue of Consumer Reports, which scrutinized organic foods and other products and whether the added cost was beneficial to consumers, said that organic seafood was "not worth buying" in the absence of USDA standards.

 

Across the pond

Federal organic standards will apply to both domestic and imported seafood. Richard Martin, president of Martin International in Boston, describes his imported organic salmon and cod, which are sold under the Black Pearl trademark in 15 countries, as "chemical nevers." The fish are farmed in the Shetland Islands, about 200 miles north of mainland Scotland, adhering to a process that meets U.K. standards for organically produced food. No growth hormones, antibiotics or pesticides are used and the fishmeal includes trimmings of fish intended for human consumption.

"The process is what is organic," says Martin, who serves as the chair of the National Fisheries Institute's Organic Seafood Committee, which was formed earlier this year. "It's not the fish, it's all the things that were done to the fish. Organic is a process claim; it is not a product claim. It's all about IOI - input, output, impact."

In other words, what the fish eats, what the fish farm produces for waste and what effects the entire operation has on the surrounding environment are the chief concerns of organic certifiers.

The U.K.'s Organic Food Federation first certified organic salmon seven years ago; the Shetland Islands farm that produces Black Pearl salmon earned organic status in 2005.

Martin says his customer base began trending toward organic in the late 1990s, but few producers could tackle organic seafood because of the high costs involved. "It wasn't practical for corporate-size farms," Martin says.

On top of that, consumers weren't ready either.

"Five years ago the market was not willing to pay for such a luxury. But by 2005, we found the market was comfortable paying [the extra] price," Martin says. "Going forward, what kind of operational changes will fish farms need to implement? What kinds of costs will they incur? And after all is said and done, can these producers realize a greater profit by farming organic seafood?"

High demand for organics has created this current opportunity for seafood, yet large-scale production of organic seafood may be difficult to achieve within the confines of organic principles, Martin adds.

"The chances of staying chem-free are slim," he says. "If they bring on disease, [a farm] will be forced to convert to conventional practices and go outside the standards and lose organic status. They'll need to keep within the means of organic."

Only two U.S. aquaculture operations - Permian Sea Organics in Imperial, Texas, and OceanBoy Farms in Clewiston, Fla. - claim to produce organic seafood; both raise shrimp at inland facilities. David McMahon, founder and chief scientist for OceanBoy, says his "aquatic eco-farm," which is 60 miles from the shore, is a completely closed system that employs 20 scientists who conduct extensive water-quality tests daily.

"We take our biosecurity more seriously than anyone on earth," McMahon says. "We don't expect everyone who gets organic [certification] to live up to our standards."

OceanBoy removed the USDA Organic logo from its packaging last year when its use expired after three years, McMahon says. But, he adds, when the federal standards are finalized, "I imagine we'll be the first ones certified."

This year, McMahon expects to produce about 4 million pounds of shrimp certified organic by Quality Certification Services in Jacksonville, Fla. In early March, OceanBoy was sold out until this summer's harvest- an indicator of what McMahon says the demand for organic seafood is and will be in the future.

 

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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