Alaskans push new organic label for salmon

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Alaskans regard their salmon as the ultimate in wholesome food - wild fish raised on the natural bounty of the sea.

Yet Alaska's salmon and other seafoods apparently face a hard time winning the right to be called ``organic'' under a certification program being developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Alaska seafood players are irked.

``To all of us, it's a no-brainer,'' said Kate Troll, fisheries development specialist for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

As it turns out, winning the organic label is tricky, especially for seafood. Only recently has the notion of organic foods migrated off land and into the water.

Last Wednesday, a procession of members of Alaska's fishing industry argued for certification at a USDA hearing at the Anchorage Hilton. The hearing was the second of three held nationally by the agency to sound out the public on organic standards for ``aquatic animals.''

The Agriculture Department is responsible for developing organic food standards under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The aim of the act was to create a single, national set of standards to resolve a proliferation of private organic labels, said Keith Jones, manager of USDA's National Organic Program.

The hearings are only the beginning of a long process to determine how seafood might be certified organic, Jones said. Up to now, organic applied only to land products such as vegetables and livestock.

``The whole notion of certifying seafood is a completely new concept,'' Jones said.

Alaskans became alarmed recently when it appeared that the most likely seafood to win the government organic seal would be their mortal enemy, seafood raised on aquatic farms, Troll said.

The reason is control. On a fish farm, much more is known about the care and feeding of fish, from egg to smolt to adult. Growers know exactly what the fish eat and whether they've been exposed to pollutants. Alaska outlawed salmon farms but they have exploded worldwide, decimating Alaska's market share.

While Alaskans assume that wild salmon swim in pristine seas and eat only healthy organisms like zooplankton, small fish and squid, they don't know for sure what each fish consumes and whether it encounters poisons.

Diane Joy Goodman, a California consultant to organic food producers, argues that wild creatures can't and shouldn't automatically qualify as organic. The original concept of organic foods was to grow and harvest products according to rigorous standards for purity, Goodman said.

Alaska salmon ``has a very hard road ahead of it,'' Goodman said.

But Alaska seafood producers are confident that standards can be developed to include wild seafood in the organic club.

They point to a couple of seafood companies operating in Alaska that have won organic certification from private certifying bodies.

One is Prime Select Seafoods, a salmon and halibut packing house that this month won full certification from the Organic Growers and Buyers Association. The Minnesota-based association is one of the few to certify aquatic products.

The association sent an inspector to look at the Copper River Delta, where Prime Select fishermen catch their salmon. Seventeen fishermen have signed contracts to bleed and refrigerate their fish, to keep their organic catch separate from fish bound for conventional markets, to avoid washing their boats with certain types of cleansers, and to submit to periodic inspections, said Jeff Bailey, Prime Select's president.

Beyond this, flesh samples are lab tested for pesticides, heavy metals and mercury contamination, and the packing house maintains an ``audit trail'' so buyers can trace the fish back to the actual fisherman who caught it, Bailey said.

``To me it makes perfect sense that we would qualify,'' he said.

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