An article in the April 7 Food section on salmon labeled by some retailers as organic incorrectly stated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the use of the organic seal but not the use of the word "organic." The USDA regulates the use of the word with regard to agricultural products that come from livestock or crops; salmon does not fall under that category. (Published 4/8/04)
Next to the shimmering sides of salmon in the seafood case at the market, little white signs often indicate the fish's origin or upbringing: farm-raised, wild, Icelandic, Atlantic, Copper River, Coho and so on. For anyone keeping count of the dizzying array, another flag with another term has now been stuck in the ice.
In response to a study in early January that incriminated farm-raised salmon as containing substantially more PCB, dioxin and other cancer-causing contaminants than wild salmon, some local stores have begun to offer customers salmon labeled "organic."
Does this term ensure that the salmon is contaminant-free? Does it mean it is wild? Was it fed an organic diet?
In fact, these organic salmon are farm-raised. And although the organic salmon differs from conventional farm-raised salmon in several important ways, there is no evidence to date that indicates the contaminant level of organic farmed salmon is less than that of conventional farmed salmon.
Many Americans have come to trust the word organic as an indication that a product is relatively free of contaminants and its producer is environmentally responsible. But there is an important distinction with salmon. Notably absent from the placards next to the salmon is the USDA organic seal. This symbol, introduced in October 2002, lets consumers know that the product is in compliance with the standards of the National Organics Program of the USDA. However, the program does not currently have standards that pertain to seafood.
"We may someday address aquatic species. It just hasn't happened," said Joan Shaffer, National Organics Program spokeswoman. The use of the term organic in conjunction with salmon is not in violation of USDA policy because there are no standards for salmon and because the USDA regulates only the use of the organic seal and not the use of the word organic. In fact, there is no regulatory agency that sets organic standards for salmon.
In Europe, however, regulations for organic aquaculture, or fish farm operations, have been in place for at least five years. Most salmon labeled organic originates in the chilly waters of the north Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of Ireland, Nova Scotia and Scotland.
For salmon to be labeled organic, the farm must operate in strict adherence with standards set forth by any of several organic certifying agencies in Europe. These standards are stricter than those applied to conventional aquaculture operations. Under the rules of the Soil Association, a British-based agency, the number of salmon per pen is half that of conventional farms to minimize crowding and resulting disease; the salmon are fed fish meal containing the trimmings of fish fit for human consumption rather than industrial fish meal and the amount of fish oil is lower than that in conventional fish meal (fish oil is a suspected source of cancer-causing contaminants); the use of pesticides to treat sea lice is strongly restricted; the synthetic pigment, canthaxanthin, which mimics the pink coloring crustaceans impart to wild salmon, is prohibited. All organic aquaculture operations are inspected at least once a year.
Following the report of contaminants in farm-raised salmon, both Dean & Deluca in Georgetown and Sutton Place Gourmet decided to sell European-certified organic salmon in addition to conventional farm-raised and wild salmon.
"I felt it prudent to offer our guests a choice," said Max Devens, seafood buyer and merchandiser for Sutton Place Gourmet. In recent months, sales of both wild and organic salmon have increased, according to Devens, although the conventional farm-raised salmon has remained the No. 1 seller.
At Dean & DeLuca, a shockingly pale pink slab of organic salmon from Ireland occasionally rests in between a pale orange farmed salmon and a brilliant wild Alaskan salmon.
"We're starting to realize if you offer organic farm-raised next to non-organic farm-raised, people always choose the organic," said Sam Bradford, assistant manager at Dean & DeLuca.
At both stores, both on the ice and in price, a slab of salmon labeled organic lies in between its farm-raised and wild caught brethren. It costs about $13 per pound, as opposed to $7 for conventional farm-raised and $18 for wild.
The same European-certified organic salmon is also available at Wegmans Food Market in Sterling. However, the little white sign next to it reads "all-natural, farm-raised salmon."
"This particular salmon is sold as 'organic salmon' in Europe," said Jo Natale, consumer services manager for Wegmans. "However, because there are no standards in the United States we do not label it organic."
Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods store in the country, sells farm-raised and wild salmon but does not label any as organic. A press release on the company's Web site states, "As there are currently no organic standards that the National Organic Standards Board has developed and recommended for seafood, we believe that to represent such product as organic to our customers would undermine the integrity of the organic label."
"We . . . are not going to label anything organic until there are specific standards set," Joe Stouffer, seafood manager for mid-Atlantic Whole Foods Markets, said.
Consumers may want to ask more questions of their fish supplier as to the source of the fish.
And then there is the issue of taste. When both organic and conventional farm-raised salmon were seared and sampled side by side with wild, there was little distinction in appearance, texture or flavor between the two varieties of farm-raised. They both paled compared with wild salmon.