Are Wild Fish Too Natural to Be Organic?


The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to figure out what makes fish organic. If you're thinking it's all the carbon molecules, clearly you haven't been paying attention to the debate over which products should qualify for an "organic" label, which attracts consumers who are willing to pay more for food so they can feel better about eating it. Organic in this sense is not a chemical description but a set of seemingly abitrary rules that, like Jewish dietary laws, set one group of people apart from others. As with kosher food, some consumers believe "organic" food is healthier than conventional food. Others say it is better for the environment, or (in the case of dairy, egg, and meat products) less cruel to animals. But since the U.S. government started regulating use of the term, it is whatever the USDA says it is. For produce, it means no artificial pesticides or fertilizer. For livestock, it means organic feed, no antibiotics, and relatively roomy accommodations. But what does it mean for fish?

Companies that sell wild fish say nothing could be more natural. But keepers of the organic faith worry about depletion of fish stocks, which is bad for the environment, and insist that the "organic" label, strictly speaking, applies only to agriculture, which catching fish is not. In that sense, wild fish are too natural to be organic. There also are problems with farm-raised fish: overcrowding, polluted water, and the difficulty of finding organic feed for fish that eat other fish. An expert tells The New York Times that distinguishing between organic and convenional (inorganic?) fish "is a strange concept" and that "the more you look at it, particularly for particular kinds of fish, it gets even stranger." Observant Jews have a much easier time: Anything with fins and scales will do.