Call me Organic. A federal organic label for seafood has become an elusive white whale, spawning an exhausting regulatory journey of epic proportions, spanning nearly a decade—so far. In November 2008, after a marathon meeting of the Livestock Committee of the National Organic Standards Board, where speakers hurled verbal harpoons at one another, members finally approved a list of recommendations to send to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use as the basis for developing regulations. The recommendations left industry, environmental and consumer groups sputtering like a bunch of Ahabs.

One side believes the recommendations will gut the organic program. The other side is convinced that if accepted as is, the aquaculture industry will have as much chance of survival as a fish out of water. Board members believe the standards represent their best efforts after years of research, education and debate.

Both sides do agree, however, that a label is critical. “Consumers are dying for information that a label would provide,” says Dick Martin, former chair of the National Fisheries Institute’s Organic Seafood Committee, who now runs Boston-based Martin International Corp. and its line of seafood, Black Pearl.

“The country desperately needs an organic standard for fish and seafood,” agrees Henry Lovejoy, president and founder of EcoFish, a Dover, N.H.-based company that sells only fish from sustainably managed fisheries. “But it’s extremely complicated. And we must be very careful that we don’t dilute the organic standard as customers know it.”

Even though no USDA organic label for seafood exists, seafood labeled with an organic certification from other countries can be sold here (except in California). This muddies the waters for consumers. “People are confused,” says Maryanne Cufone, fish campaign director of the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, which takes the position, along with the Center for Food Safety, that such seafood should not be sold with an organic label. “[Consumers] would be very surprised to learn what goes into these so-called organic fish,” she says.

“It’s so difficult to take a land-based agriculture standard and try to apply it to seafood.”

Why is developing a standard taking so long? “Seafood in general is the most complex food category on earth, and to the credit of the NOSB, that’s why it’s taken so long,” says Lovejoy. “It’s so difficult to take a land-based agriculture standard and try to apply it to seafood.” Some would say it’s impossible. “You can’t make a direct parallel,” says Tim Redmond, president of Blue Horizon Organic Seafood Co. in Dexter, Mich. “The animals that live below the water are one thing, the ones above, another. The standards have to be approached in that way.” However, the working group has grappled for years to devise a way to apply the existing USDA organic regulations in place for chickens and pigs to salmon and tilapia. From the outside, it seems like trying to snag Moby Dick with a tiger trap. And nobody’s happy.

“We don’t think that, at a very fundamental level, [the recommendations] meet the basic principles of organic—the letter or the spirit of what the organic law means,” says George Kimbrell, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.

Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at nonprofit Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., is outraged at the recommendations. “To slap an ‘organic’ label on this fish is deceptive and undermines the entire organic program. It’s just egregious on so many levels.”

On the other hand, the way the recommendations are written now “kills almost all aquaculture,” says George Lockwood, who chaired the Aquaculture Working Group, a panel of 12 academics, aquaculture industry vets and environmentalists who helped draft the recommendations. “From the industry side, if you make these recommendations going forward, they’re dead on the table,” Martin says. “We can’t do it, or it would be prohibitively expensive. And if you can’t sell the product, why have a rule?”

What, exactly, are the issues?

Aquaculture proponents are fuming over the following, Lockwood says:

  • The requirement that aquaculture facilities must capture and reuse at least 50 percent of nitrogen and phosphorous being discharged as waste. “The technology does not exist for that except in a rare few exceptions,” Lockwood says.
    “We won’t see rules approved sooner than 18 months.”
  • The revocation of organic certification if greater than 5 percent of the cultured stock escape from net pens, a requirement that is “totally unworkable, as you can’t count the number of fish even within 5 percent accuracy,” he says.
  • The requirement that fish grown in open-water net pens be only local, native species and not fish genetically improved through conventional means. “If this were applied to chickens, since they originated as jungle fowl in India, the only organic chickens would be chickens grown in India,” Lockwood says. For tilapia, which has been bred from a species that originated in Egypt, the only place where organic tilapia could be grown would be in the Nile.

    Meanwhile, environmental and consumer groups, including a coalition of 44 groups collectively representing more than a million stakeholders, have their own issues. They oppose that the recommendations allow:

  • Using fish feed that is not 100 percent organic, the standard met by other USDA-certified organic livestock. “Using wild fish (which have the potential to carry mercury and PCBs) as feed is what disappoints us most,” says Andrea Kavanagh, manager of the Salmon Aquaculture Reform Campaign at the Pew Environment Group. According to a Consumers Union poll released in November 2008, 93 percent of those surveyed said fish labeled “organic” should be produced with 100 percent organic feed; 90 percent said organic fish farms should be required to recover waste and not pollute the environment.
  • The use of open-net cages—fish enclosures that float in the open ocean and might flush pollution, disease and parasites from fish farms into the ocean. Open-net cages simply cannot be labeled organic, says Consumers Union’s Rangan, because the inputs and outputs can never be contained. “That’s the litmus test,” she says: “Does it contaminate the environment or not? And there are so many studies out there on farmed salmon populations that show that it does.” Not only is there the risk the farmed populations would negatively impact ocean life, but disease and contaminants from surrounding fish populations—farmed and wild—may flow into the farmed populations.

    The working group meets again next month; as of press time, the agenda was not released, but basically, these issues are out of that group’s hands for now. National Organic Program and USDA officials will continue to review the recommendations. They can amend them, or send the whole project back to the working group. Environmental and consumers group members are hopeful that the new administration will see things their way. “It’s going to take some kind of push from the top,” Rangan says. “[Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack has already addressed loopholes within the country-of-origin labeling; we’re hoping they’ll address other labeling issues.”

    “We’re hopeful that the new administration can look at this issue [organic seafood standards] with fresh eyes, as they’re doing with many issues, particularly if there’s considerable public outcry,” says the Center for Food Safety’s Kimbrell. “For now, people should be aware that this issue is upon us.”

    There will be a public comment period before any action is taken, says Joan Shaffer, spokeswoman for the NOP in Washington, D.C.

    “We won’t see rules approved sooner than 18 months, and we’re more likely looking at two years,” Lockwood says. The quest for regulations sails on; the fish story continues.