By Ellyn Ferguson
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON - Wild fish and organic fish are not the same - at least for now. But consumers could soon be told they are, despite a federal panel's conclusion to the contrary.
Hoping to boost a struggling fishing industry by tapping the hot organic food trend, two Alaska senators slipped a provision into a wartime spending bill directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to devise criteria for labeling wild fish and seafood as organic.
But a USDA advisory board rejected that idea two years ago because no one knows if fish caught in the wild passed through contaminated water or ate things potentially harmful to humans. A major retailer of organic foods, Whole Foods Market, considers the idea of organic wild fish "totally ludicrous."
Rebecca Goldburg, a member of USDA's organic advisory board, said organic standards for wild-caught fish and seafood "just don't mesh coherently with existing standards."
The board decided that under certain circumstances, fish raised in aquatic farms might qualify as organic if growers limit use of antibiotics and nonorganic feed. USDA is still developing those standards.
That doesn't make sense to U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Alaska Republicans.
"It seemed incongruous to us that farmed salmon could be labeled as organic when something as natural as wild salmon was not," Murkowski said.
The intent of their provision was to make sure wild fish is eligible for organic status and to instruct the Agriculture Department to come up with guidelines for the labeling.
"It was our intent that this would not merely be a suggestion," Murkowski said.
The U.S. fishing industry is dependent on fluctuating, seasonal supplies of wild stock and is battling competition from foreign imports and cheaper farm-raised fish available year-round. In Alaska, wild fish means wild salmon, a fish that is facing competition from farm-raised Atlantic salmon from Chile.
Meanwhile, market studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay up to a third more for organic foods. Although the organic food remains less than 10 percent of the overall food market, it is the fastest-growing part. Organic food sales are expected to hit $20 billion by 2005, double the sales in 2001.
"Anything to market wild U.S. salmon is a plus," said Cassandra Wright, co-owner of Vis Seafoods in Bellingham, Wash. She has tried to educate buyers about the benefits of wild salmon - a better taste and natural pink color.
But she worries that the price premium organic foods can fetch "might push wild fish prices out of the market."
"There is a price limit people will spend on salmon before they turn up their noses," Wright said.
Alaska has tried marketing its salmon by touting it as wild instead of farm-raised, like most Atlantic salmon. But "people don't know what wild fish is," Murkowski said. "People know what organic is, or at least they think they know what it is."
"Organic is a recognized market claim about the wholesomeness of your product. Consumers recognize that," said Justin LeBlanc, vice president of governmental affairs for National Fisheries Institute.
LeBlanc said the institute wants to talk with USDA officials as they develop organic standards. In some cases, testing wild fish for toxins might make sense, he said.
In recent years, medical and environmental groups have warned pregnant women and young children to limit their fish consumption because some species have high concentrations of heavy metals such as mercury in sharks, swordfish and king mackerel.
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