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Cooke Aquaculture anticipates consumer up-take

Matt Whittaker NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is closing in on a long-awaited organic certification standard for aquaculture, with the eco-label the industry has been pining for possibly appearing on farm-raised seafood in supermarkets by 2017.

The department expects to release a proposed rule for organic aquaculture certification in April or May, with the Office of Management and Budget then having 90 days to review it before publication in late summer, Miles McEvoy, deputy director of the department’s National Organic Program, told an audience at an industry gathering Saturday.

It could take another year to get the final rule out, with the USDA aiming for the end of 2016 on that front, he told Undercurrent News on the sidelines of the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture America conference.

After that, certifiers will have to be accredited, and then they can inspect farms, and producers can receive certification to put the “USDA Organic” label on their products, potentially putting certified products on supermarket shelves in 2017, he said.

The proposed rule will include shellfish, marine and recirculating system methods of aquaculture, as well as the controversial net-pen method, he said.

Having an official USDA organic aquaculture label would lower some of the barriers to price resistance on seafood in the United States, Linda O’Dierno, outreach specialist with the National Aquaculture Association, told an audience at the conference.

People interested in organic food — who tend to see themselves as values oriented, health conscious and concerned about the environment and sustainability — are willing to pay more for it when it has a trustworthy label, she said.

She noted that grocery chain Wegmans has been successful getting a premium for seafood certified as organic under other nations’ standards.

In addition to Wegmans, the majority of large retailers are already selling salmon labeled as organic under standards from other countries, said Andrew Lively, director of marketing with Cooke Aquaculture’s True North Salmon division.

He agreed that people in the niche organic seafood market are willing to pay a premium for reputably branded salmon.

“These consumers are not price conscious consumers,” he said. “They are looking for a certification program.”

Since imports of organic-certified seafood are allowed, the US needs its own label to level the playing field, O’Dierno said.

Once the US has organic standards in place, all imports labeled as organic would have to meet US certification standards, McEvoy told the audience. Currently the department doesn’t take enforcement action on imports certified as organic under other nations’ standards, he said.

When asked by an audience member whether US aquaculture production facilities could be certified under foreign certification programs, he said “it’s not something that we would encourage.”