My Turn: Alaska salmon deserve organic label

Posted: Tuesday, July 03, 2001

What do you think of when you hear the term "organic?" Natural. Safe. Healthy. Of course! That's why it's surprising and disappointing that a federal advisory group wants the U.S. government to declare that wild fish cannot be labeled "organic." To anyone who has ever savored Alaska's wild salmon that just doesn't make sense. What could be more natural, healthier or more safe?

That's not how a task force of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recently looked at it, however. They interpreted an 11-year-old law that regulates livestock on land to decide that aquatic animals do not deserve the organic label. That's like trying to taxidermy a salmon skin around the form of a cow or a chicken - it just doesn't fit. The good news is, there is time for Alaskans to share their views on this enormous economic issue with the National Organic Program before Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has to make a final decision next fall. In June, I presented Alaska's position on this issue to the NOSB. I strongly encourage you to add your voice on this critical matter and send a letter to this agency.

First, it's important to understand the task force's recommendation and the impact on Alaska. The NOSB is responsible for considering what foods qualify for the organic label. The 1990 law governing organic labeling mandates that managers control all materials and aspects of production, whether it's a crop or an animal.

The task force report says "that only operations that introduce and continuously manage a discrete population of aquatic animals analogous to a herd of ruminants [livestock] or poultry are suitable for certification."

Under those restrictive and "landlocked" definitions, it's obvious that virtually NO fish likely will qualify for the organic label. That will put an indisputably healthy and natural product at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace where the term "organic" is increasingly appealing to consumers. At $8.8 billion, the organic market is growing at an astronomical 20 percent annually - compared to about 3 percent in the rest of the retail market.

The economic stakes for Alaska are enormous. If we were an independent country, our fish harvest would rank 12th in the world, worth more than a billion dollars to fishers annually. Seafood is Alaska's top export and our waters account for half of America's fish production, by volume and in value. The seafood industry provides the greatest number of private sector jobs in the state more than 20,000 year-round and about double that on a seasonal basis. The livelihoods of more than one-third of Alaska's towns are dependent on fish. The organic label will allow Alaska's seafood to compete in a highly competitive market.

It is ironic that Alaska fish are prized for their purity and wild origins - meaning virtually no human interference until harvest - while current standards for organic labeling emphasize human manipulation over every facet of production. Which is more natural?

Alaska's fisheries are inherently pristine and deliberately managed. The various species consume a completely natural diet. The ecosystems supporting wild aquatic species are innately organic.

Monitoring and oversight of the strength and health of various fish stocks is constant, from habitat quality to harvest quantities. Alaska managers want to minimize human impact on the marine environment - not maximize it, as current organic standards suggest.

It's evident that current organic guidelines for onshore "livestock" are not applicable to offshore aquatic animals. Therefore, it makes sense for NOSB members, instead, to scrutinize the Alaska model of organic fish management through a different lens. USDA regulations already exist that define commercial harvesting of fish as a type of wild crop. These guidelines could be applied to Alaska's fish.

Alaska policy makers respect stringent standards for certifying organic foods and do not wish to tamper with their integrity. Instead, we encourage the NOSB to consider concerns about aquatic animals as a springboard to develop appropriate standards that rightfully accommodate Alaska's Number One organic product: fish.

I urge Alaskans in all walks of life to make your voice heard. Please take a moment to express your views by sending a letter to the following addresses:

National Organic Standards Board, Attention: Mark Keating, USDA, 1400 Independence Ave., S.W. Room 2510, Washington, D.C. 20029.

Honorable Ann Veneman, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14th & Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250.

Richard Mathews, Acting Director, USDA National Organic Program, Room 2945, South Building, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456.

Ulmer traveled to Wisconsin in June to testify to the National Organic Standards Board.

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