ANCHORAGE - Efforts to have wild Alaska salmon certified as organic suffered a setback Wednesday when a federal study panel ruled against the idea.
The panel also said farmed fish raised in ocean pens, wild Alaska salmon's strongest competitor, might qualify as organic.
The final decision won't come until the fall, when the National Organic Standards Board, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, makes a final ruling.
The board's Aquatic Animal Task Force on Wednesday said the issue is one of control. People who raise farmed fish can control every aspect of their diet and environment from birth to plate, just like cattle or chickens. But no one knows what a wild fish eats or contacts.
Late last year the federal government adopted organic standards for land-raised foods, capping a 10-year process. Now, officials are working on whether to develop a set of standards for aquatic foods.
Alaska will continue to fight, said Glenn Haight, a state fisheries development specialist. He said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer will make the state's case at the organic board's June 6-7 meeting in La Crosse, Wis.
Glenn Reed, president of a Seattle-based trade association of major salmon packers, said he doesn't think Alaska has lost the battle. But he said he hasn't sensed much sympathy from the board.
"They've basically told us to take a hike every time we've met with them," Reed said.
Alaska salmon producers fear not winning the organic label will cut their wild fish out of a growing, multibillion-dollar market for organic foods. Also, they are worried countries such as Chile are certifying their farmed salmon as organic and could sell it in the U.S.
Thomas Harding, an international organic agriculture and trade consultant in Pennsylvania, said some of the resistance to certifying wild Pacific salmon is due to the size of their range. But he said farmed salmon swim in the same ocean.
"If we can't certify wild salmon, I don't know how in good conscience we can certify farmed salmon," he said.