Organic Seafood 101
In today’s culture, more and more people are becoming socially and economically aware of how their habits and consumption impact not only their own health, but the health of the world around them. Sales of products labeled “organic” have increased exponentially over the last several years, with everything from organic produce, to organic meat, to organic ingredients and seasonings. In addition, there are various benefits of eating organic. However, until relatively recently, there has been no real standards in place for organic seafood. Labeling something organic means there’s something organic in how it’s produced, in the production process itself. That doesn’t really apply to wild-caught seafood, so there are no standards nor organic certification to qualify it, or other seafood products, as such.
However, because of overfishing, many are moving into the aquaculture industry and setting up fish farms, such as salmon farms, despite a swirl of controversy around the practice of fish farms. Environmentally aware fisheries attempt to create fish farms that are sustainable and leave as little impact on the environment as possible. Since farming fish requires a process, standards could then be created and put in place so that organic farming principles could be followed in making farm-raised fish. Once standards were in place, the organic label could then be applied. Read more about the difference between farm to table and sustainable food in our blog.
Currently, the U.S. has a standard for organic principles that’s been in draft mode for over a decade, while the EU and Canada both have organic standards in place now. The IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) is also currently working on creating a standard for aquaculture. This is largely because more people are becoming aware of the connection between sustainable farming practices and better health as consumers, in addition to the eco-friendliness that is inherent in sustainable fish farming. Organizations like the Pacific Organic Seafood Association have helped to drive the conversation and develop those organic aquaculture standards, working with other members of the aquaculture industry to improve organic aquaculture systems as a whole.
Tips for Buying Sustainable, Organic Seafood
It’s important for you as a consumer to know exactly where your seafood comes from and how it was obtained, whether that was through fishing or farming. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when purchasing seafood and expect satisfactory answers. While doing your own due diligence does require some effort on your part, if everyone does this, the seafood industry will begin a shift in order to meet the demands of the market.
A couple of questions you might ask are, where does the seafood you’re buying for your unique seafood recipes originate? Was it farm-raised or caught in the wild? You can also ask how the seafood was farmed exactly and whether or not there are more eco-friendly alternatives you might consider. You should also ask whether or not the fish is really what it is labeled as. Fish fraud is rampant, with many companies and retailers selling cheaper fish but mislabeling it as something else. Sometimes people think that only wild caught fish is “organic” and safest to eat. However, there isn’t actually a huge difference in the nutritional benefits of fish that’s been caught and fish that’s been raised on a farm. Additionally, some sources say that farm-raised fish actually have more omega-3 fatty acids, making them a healthier option for your heart than wild caught. Learn more about wild caught vs farm raised fish in our related blog post.
Also, it’s important to note that not all seafood that’s labeled organic is also sustainable seafood. If you’ve purchased organic seafood in the U.S. it’s because it’s been imported from another country. That country’s standards may allow unsustainable practices that can be harmful to natural habitats and ecosystems, such as using chemicals, using open net pens, and using fish food that may be contaminated and be comprised of nonorganic seafood byproducts. Check out the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project to learn how they’re working towards a more sustainable food system in San Diego.
Unfortunately, you can’t always trust labels, although two you may want to look for when buying your seafood are the BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices) certified label, and the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) certified label. ASC is a nonprofit that works to ensure fish farms are complying with sustainable practices all across the board, and that what they are doing doesn’t hurt the environment. BAP monitors processing plants, farms, feed mills, and hatcheries to help reduce their impact on the environment and ensure safety in the way seafood is handled.
Fish farms that are following sustainable and organic production practices will have a few things in common. They won’t use GMO’s or other hormones designed to promote growth, and they won’t use antibiotics to keep their fish healthy, because they are following responsible and sustainable fish farming practices to foster good health. They feed their fish a diet that is natural and complies with established standards and do not resort to feeding their fish food that is contaminated or that is a byproduct of animal waste. Sadly, there are some fish farms overseas that have been known to feed their fish Salmonella-tainted pig feces.
Ultimately, organic aquaculture production has a commitment to developing systems that are sustainable and eco-friendly, they closely monitor the quality of their water and water sources, and they have a healthy respect for the environment that is providing for them. They recycle and use resources that are renewable, they work to reduce their waste, and strive hard not to pollute the environment or harm habitats that may be sensitive. The needs of aquatic life, species, and animal welfare are paramount.
As you can see, buying organic ocean seafood from grocery stores or restaurants isn’t quite as cut and dried as it may sound. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself as much as you can, so that you know what to look for. Knowledge is power and if you have knowledge, you will know what questions to ask before purchasing seafood that may be subpar. If the answers you receive don’t fit with your views on sustainability and if the seafood product in question doesn’t possess the certification labels that help to ensure organic standards of quality have been met, it may be best to take a pass.
Eco Caters and other Los Angeles chefs are providing organic catering, from corporate catering and wedding catering using local and sustainably fished seafood through the program, Seafood for the Future. Click on the link to learn more.