Panel says Alaska salmon doesn't qualify as organic

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska has suffered a major blow in its efforts to win the federal government's official organic label for wild salmon.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided Wednesday the state's salmon and other wild seafood don't qualify as organic food.

The National Organic Standards Board, meeting in Washington, D.C., voted 14-0, against developing a set of national organic standards for wild fish. The board said that such standards could be developed for some farmed fish. But the board did not mandate that such standards be written. Fish farming is illegal in Alaska.

The USDA last year adopted national organic standards for land animals and crops, but left the issue of organic seafood to further debate. Many in the established organic foods movement say they don't think wild fish should qualify as organic because their diet and possible exposure to contaminants can't be controlled.

Alaska's salmon industry wants to win the government label to boost sales and focus marketing. It is expected to be a valuable ticket into the growing organic foods market, which had estimated sales of $7.8 billion last year.

Wednesday's defeat was expected, according to Glenn Haight, fisheries development specialist for the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development. The board is dominated by people familiar with production, processing and retailing of land foods, he said. On Wednesday, the board essentially accepted the recommendation of an ''aquatic animal'' task force.

''We had little confidence in the board to review the material that we sent to them and make a thorough decision,'' Haight told the Anchorage Daily News.

The board's vote is advisory only, said Richard Mathews, manager of the National Organic Program, a wing of the USDA. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has the final say, and the department could decide whether or not to develop organic standards for fish.

''I cannot and will not speculate on what will happen in the future on this,'' Mathews said.

Haight said the state will continue to press the National Organic Program to certify Alaska's wild fish. A big worry is that other proteins such as chicken and beef are now eligible for the organic label but not fish, a potential disadvantage for salmon in the marketplace.

''It's a bit of an uneven playing field,'' Haight said.

U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, and five other Southern lawmakers, sent a letter to Veneman protesting the possible exclusion of seafood, both wild and farmed, from using the government organic label.

Congress passed an organic food production act in 1990 to reconcile a patchwork of private organic labels.

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