(Beyond Pesticides, May 9, 2008) The Center for Food Safety (CFS) yesterday sent letters to the Attorneys General of 49 states urging the top state law enforcement officials to take action against the misleading practice of labeling seafood imports as “organic.” The state-based effort to protect the integrity of organic food labels is a follow-up to the complaints filed by the Center last year with the USDA and Federal Trade Commission (see also Daily News of November 5, 2007). To date, these federal agencies have left the complaints unanswered, while U.S. consumers are increasingly confronted with imported seafood misleadingly labeled as “organic,” despite the fact that there are no U.S. organic seafood standards in place. In the action, the CFS calls upon USDA to prevent consumer deception by enforcing existing organic labeling laws and regulations until new standards are finalized. CFS, which is joined in this effort by Food & Water Watch, has identified the practice of allowing seafood to be labeled as “organic” in absence of regulations as unfair, deceptive and misleading – a violation of the states’ consumer deception and misrepresentation laws. With U.S. sales of organic food dramatically increasing, a number of foreign seafood imports labeled as “organic” have appeared to take advantage of this emerging market.
“Allowing importers to label their seafood ‘organic’ when it does not have to meet any U.S. standards is a disservice to American consumers, who have come to trust and believe in the organic label,” said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of CFS. “USDA’s refusal to stop importers from calling their products organic when many of them use antibiotics, parasiticides, or feed that would not be permitted under U.S. regulations is dishonest. Consumers have the right to know that the labeling on their food is truthful and accurate and we’re asking the states to protect that right.”
USDA is currently in the process of establishing organic regulations for finfish and shellfish, a process that may take up to two years. In the middle of May, the National Organic Standards Board will be discussing new recommendations addressing the type of feeds that may be used under future organic aquaculture standards. As currently drafted, the regulations would not allow the use of antibiotics or non-organic feed. Antibiotics are a particular concern for both farmed and wild fish. Recently, salmon in New Zealand have been found to have four times the levels of antibiotics allowed by the country’s Food Standards. Salmon on the United States’ west coast are the subject of a recent lawsuit concerning their risk of pesticide exposure.
“It is time for other states to follow California’s example and stop the abuse of the organic label on imported seafood,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Importers should not be allowed to market their products with claims about meeting a standard that doesn’t exist.”
In 2005, California passed a law (SB 730) preventing the labeling of any seafood as “organic” until federal standards are finalized and in place. With their letters, the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch have requested that the nation’s 49 other states use their authority under existing consumer protection laws to quickly curtail the misleading use of the term “organic” by overseas seafood producers so that consumers are not adversely affected.
The integrity of the term “organic” is critical to protect consumers and farmers who are following USDA requirements. For more information on organic food farming, visit our program page.