Organic standards for US farmed seafood going nowhere despite market demand

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Federal organic certification for aquaculture products could open a new market to U.S. producers, but government progress toward creating standards stalled late in the administration of President Barack Obama and has yet to be renewed.

Aquaculture industry leaders involved in the drafting of the standards told SeafoodSource that the organic standards bogged down in late 2016, after years of incremental steps through the long and complicated drafting process and just short of the finish line.

In the end, “there was a lot of external political pressure being brought to bear by the environmental community on the Obama administration,” Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association and a member of a group that worked on the standards, told SeafoodSource.

“This whole thing ground to a stop under the Obama administration,” he said. “It seemed like it was a completely unachievable goal.”

Aquaculture products with an organic label are commonly sold on store shelves, with estimates showing that organic-labeled products account for between. 0.5 percent and one percent of the North American seafood market, Belle said. These organic labels are issued according to European or Canadian standards.

Virtually none of those certifications are as strict as the proposed U.S. organic standards, Belle said. For instance, the European standard allows antibiotic use twice before harvest, while the U.S. standard would have prohibited antibiotic use.

The foreign-certified labels leave U.S. seafood producers in a bind.

“We as domestic farmers are competing against a product with the organic label on it, but we can’t compete in that market,” Belle said.

Though the idea of an organic standard for wild-caught seafood was suggested years ago, the idea was eventually dropped because of how “organic” is defined. 

“Organic is a process claim, not a product claim,” Belle explained. “You are verifying that the process used to grow that product has reduced the probability that contaminants have made it into the plant or animal.”

By that definition, an organic label can’t really be applied to wild-caught seafood, since it’s not possible to control what the animal is exposed to.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) first started discussions about an organic aquaculture standard in 1999, and an Aquaculture Working Group composed of fish farmers, university scientists and environmentalists was appointed in 2005 to advise the USDA.

The group sent recommendations to the USDA in 2010, and in 2014 the agency started drafting a proposed final rule. The USDA submitted the proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 2015.

A review process that normally lasts 90 days dragged on for more than a year, until December 2016, when, finally, OMB gave its approval for the USDA to publish the rule in the federal register and solicit public comments for a 90-day period. The USDA never did that.

In the final days of the Obama administration, there was a rush to publish as many rules as possible before the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January, but a list announced two days before the inauguration did not include the organic aquaculture standard. When the new administration took over, the rule was sent back to the USDA.

“We remain on hold one year later, in spite of numerous requests to move forward into final rulemaking with the publication of the proposed final rule,” George Lockwood, who chaired the Aquaculture Working Group, told SeafoodSource. “With the change in government, USDA has put this matter on hold. We have asked on several occasions that it be moved onto their active regulatory review agenda, but that has not happened.”

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