Caroline Aslanian is better known to many as the Barefood Angel.
She’s a holistic nutritionist and mother whose interests led her to become a food educator, wellness coach and advocate of conscious living.
Caroline sent us the draft of an article she’d begun to write for her Barefood Angel blog concerning so-called “organic” salmon.
(Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell wrote about this topic back in 2006: See “Organic” Farmed Salmon Fails Taste, Credibility Tests.)
Caroline’s article reminded us that it was time to update the story of “organic” salmon, which offers a few — but not nearly enough — advantages over regular farm-raised salmon.
In fact, as our joint reporting found, “organic” farmed salmon is only slightly preferable to standard farmed salmon, and vastly less desirable to both the consumer and the environment than wild salmon.
To make matters worse, it costs about as much as wild salmon, to which it presents a clear and present danger.
Caroline’s experience at a farmers’ market
Caroline’s encounter with one seller of “organic” salmon highlights the common confusion about this product:
Recently, while at my local farmer’s market buying wild Pacific halibut I asked if their salmon was wild-caught and from the Pacific Ocean.
The person behind the counter said that even though it wasn’t wild-caught, it was “sustainable and raised organically” off the Western Canadian coast.
He then went on to say that this “organic” salmon was not farm-raised in ocean net-pens, or fed standard “salmon chow”.
(The salmon-chow pellets fed to farmed salmon are generally made from fish meal, fish oil, poultry byproducts, grains, soy, vegetable oils, vitamins and minerals.)
How could salmon be both “raised” and wild at the same time?
This didn’t make sense, so I did what I do when I become curious. I started digging for some truth.
Prompted by Caroline's troubling experience, we asked three key questions.
First, what does an “organic” label on farmed salmon even mean?
Second, is “organic” farmed salmon substantially healthier than standard farmed salmon?
Finally, are “organic” salmon farms inherently safer for surrounding fish — especially wild salmon — or for seafloor creatures and ecosystems critical to the ocean food chain?
Farm raised vs. wild-caught salmon
In many ways, "organic" farmed salmon are just like regular farmed salmon. Both are part of the broader aquaculture industry that raises seafood in artificial confines for sale to market.
Farmed salmon are raised in net-pens — often referred to as feedlots of the sea — that are tethered in near-shore waters that are shallow and prone to fouling from fish waste. The pens are overcrowded, and fish waste and uneaten feed covers the sea floor beneath them, which is a disaster for other marine life.
Farm-raised salmon, including “organic” salmon, are also fed synthetic versions of the orange-red carotenoid antioxidants that abound in the diets of wild salmon, to lend a natural-looking reddish hue to the flesh of these captive fish.
Food labeled organic is big business here in the U.S. A report from the Organic Trade Association revealed sales of organic food brought in more than $56 billion in revenue in 2020, an increase of over 12 percent over the previous year. And that trend is likely to continue.
But there’s a catch when it comes to the seafood industry. Despite years of back and forth, the USDA has yet to allow U.S. fishermen and wholesalers to use the “organic” label for seafood. The agency says it’s developing guidelines for organic seafood labeling, but it’s been doing so for years, with little to show for it.
(The wild-caught seafood Vital Choice sells already exceeds any existing standard of “organic.” But U.S. regulations prevent wild-caught seafood from being labeled that way.)
Aquaculture operations typically feed their fish a mix of other fish (which is also often farmed) and pellets consisting of everything from soy and grains to vegetable oils. Under the agency’s proposed rules, any feed that doesn’t come from fish, except supplemental vitamins and minerals, would need to be certified organic.
But the proposed USDA standard would allow up to a quarter of the feed to consist of sustainably wild-caught fish, placing burdens on wild fish stocks.
Worst of all, a proposed USDA standard would allow certified-organic fish to be raised in open-ocean net-pens, a standard salmon farming practice that can pollute the seafloor and spread disease to wild salmon (Kent, 2000).
So it's quite clear that federally approved “organic” salmon farms, should they ever materialize, will not be safer for surrounding fish and ecosystems. (Read more: Salmon Farm Sickness Caught on Video)
So why is some seafood in stores labeled “organic”?
Still, you might see some supposedly “organic” seafood at your supermarket. Some brands will be certified organic by other countries, like Canada, and then sold here in the U.S. as organic food.
In Canada, the government lays out guidelines for organic aquaculture that include restrictions on how fish can be raised, what they can be fed and more (Canadian General Standards Board, 2018). Organic farmed salmon, for example, must be fed fish meal from organic sources, or from wild, sustainably-managed fisheries (though small amounts of non-organic insects, as well as non-organic antioxidant pigments are also allowed).
The law prohibits the use of antibiotics and hormones for farmed organic fish, among other things, but it does allow for the use of chemical parasiticides. This is to combat the pervasive sea lice infections that sweep through fish farms — and which can escape to wild populations. Salmon farm pens are breeding grounds for sea lice and viruses that can escape and sicken wild salmon populations (Jansen et al., 2012).
Worse, the net-pens on most salmon farms — whether “organic” or conventional — sit directly in or very near the migration routes of wild salmon. As a result, passing wild salmon are vulnerable to the viruses and parasitic sea lice that steadily spread through the net-pens of salmon farms and into surrounding waters.
In past decades, parasites and viruses spread by salmon farms in Norway, Scotland and Ireland devastated wild Atlantic salmon populations, almost to the point of extinction. And parasites like sea lice are still a problem. One study estimated that parasites cost the Norwegian fish farming industry close to half a billion dollars in 2011 alone (Abolofia et al., 2017).
And when farmed fish escape, as happens regularly, they can intermingle with wild populations, passing on non-native genes that could create new hybrid fish. One breach in Washington in 2017 resulted in half a million non-native Atlantic salmon escaping into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The state has recently banned raising non-native fish in net pens to help prevent the harms of escapes like these, though at least one company is attempting to get around the law. (Read more: Washington Fish Farm Wants to Expand, Despite Law Ending Net Pens)
For its part, Canada announced in 2020 that the salmon farms near the country’s Discovery Islands would be gone by 2022 — something First Nations members and conservationists had long advocated for.
"Organic" farmed fish not better for the environment
The USDA currently sets high standards for other animal-based organic foods, including livestock and poultry. Under USDA rules, organic livestock must be fed only certified-organic feed and raised on certified-organic land. The standards also prohibit:
*Antibiotics are allowed to treat disease, but the treated animal cannot be sold as organic. Pain medications and de-worming drugs are allowed.
Farmers must provide healthy living conditions and attentive care, animals must not be overcrowded and they must be allowed periodic access to the outdoors and direct sunlight.
Importantly, USDA regulations say that organic livestock “must be raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior.” Canadian laws around organic aquaculture include similar language about salmon raised in net-pens.
Canadian producers of organic farmed salmon claim that their fish have about twice as much space as conventional farmed salmon. But that still constitutes very close, wholly unnatural confinement.
It's obvious that raising salmon in net-pens and feeding them pellets does not "accommodate their natural behavior." Wild salmon swim freely through the ocean, feeding on creatures at both deep and shallow depths. A net-pen, even one far larger than any in use today, would never recreate those conditions. Farmed salmon are also raised on an unnatural diet — heavy in grains and/or soy and vegetable oils, and getting these from organic sources does not change the fact these are unnatural foodstuffs for salmon.
When farmed fish are fed wild fish, it causes problems, too. So many wild fish are caught as feeder fish that some populations have come under threat. It’s led many fish farms to scale back on using real fish as feed, while ramping up other food sources. Recently, this has included a push to use more genetically modified plant-based feeds to feed farmed fish, something farmers say is necessary to match the nutrients they would get from wild-caught fish.
But even these GMO-fed fish likely wouldn’t match the nutrient profile of wild-caught. (Read more: Fish Farms Look to GMO Feed as Feeder Fish Supplies ‘Unsustainable’)
Farmed salmon is not healthier than wild salmon
One reason salmon are so healthy for us is their omega-3 fatty acid content. These nutrients are found in our brains, hearts, eyes, joints and more, and decades of research show that omega-3s are critical to our health (Swanson et al., 2012). But our bodies can’t make enough of them by themselves, so we need to get them from our diets. Seafood, and salmon especially, are some of the best sources of omega-3s.
Although farmed salmon typically has omega-3 fat levels comparable to those found in wild salmon, their diets give them far higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Too many omega-6s seriously blunt the benefit of omega-3s (Simopoulos, 2008). And studies show most Americans already get too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s.
(For more on that topic, see Farmed Fish Possess Unhealthful Fat Profiles, Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects, and other articles in the Aquaculture section of our news archive.)
After Caroline inquired about the content of their salmon feed, the breeders revealed the ingredients in the pellets fed to their “organic” farmed salmon: fish meal, certified-organic wheat, fish oil, calcium propionate, phaffia yeast and/or Panaferd-AX (natural sources of carotenoid pigments) and essential minerals and vitamins. Note that many sources of natural omega-3s — plankton and other ocean invertebrates — are missing.
The diets of wild salmon — which vary by species and age — include insects, invertebrates and plankton, small fish, squid, eels and shrimp.
“Organic” farmed salmon: bad for people and wildlife
When you consider that the advantages it may hold over its conventional cousins are so slight, and that it costs about as much as wild salmon, “organic” farmed salmon looks like a bad deal for people, wild salmon and fragile ocean ecosystems.
In fact, the best way to help protect wild salmon from the dangers posed by farmed salmon, “organic” or otherwise, is to seek out the wild fish and shun the farm-raised fraud.
Abolofia, J., Asche, F., & Wilen, J. E. (2017). The cost of lice: Quantifying the impacts of parasitic sea lice on farmed salmon. Marine Resource Economics, 32(3), 329–349. https://doi.org/10.1086/691981
Canadian General Standards Board. (2018). Aquaculture – General principles, management standards and permitted substances lists. CAN/CGSB-32.312-2018 https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/ongc-cgsb/P29-32-312-2018-eng.pdf
Chiesa, L. M., Nobile, M., Ceriani, F., Malandra, R., Arioli, F., & Panseri, S. (2019). Risk characterisation from the presence of environmental contaminants and antibiotic residues in wild and farmed salmon from different FAO zones. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 36(1), 152–162. https://doi.org/10.1080/19440049.2018.1563723
Jansen, P. A., Kristoffersen, A. B., Viljugrein, H., Jimenez, D., Aldrin, M., & Stien, A. (2012). Sea lice as a density-dependent constraint to salmonid farming. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1737), 2330–2338. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.0084
Kent, M. L. (2000). Marine netpen farming leads to infections with some unusual parasites. International Journal for Parasitology, 30(3), 321–326. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0020-7519(00)00018-7
Simopoulos, A. P. (2008). The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 233(6), 674–688. https://doi.org/10.3181/0711-mr-311
Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S. A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: Health benefits throughout life. Advances in Nutrition, 3(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.111.000893
Jalonick, M. C. (2015). USDA to propose standards for organic seafood raised in U.S. PBS News Hour. Accessed at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/usda-propose-standards-organic-seafood-raised-u-s/
Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance. (2012). New organic standard released for Canadian farmed seafood. Accessed at http://www.aquaculture.ca/news-releases/2012/5/10/new-organic-standard-released-for-canadian-farmed-seafood?rq=organic
Canadian Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. (2002). Marine salmon farming compliance report.. Accessed at https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/bib88858.pdf
Bland, A. (2013). Can A Fish Farm Be Organic? That's Up for Debate. NPR. Accessed at http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/11/19/246161040/can-a-fish-farm-be-organic-thats-up-for-debate
USDA. (2008). Formal Recommendation by The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to the national organic program (NOP). Accessed at https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOP%20 Final%20Rec%20Aquaculture%20on%20Net%20Pens.pdf
USDA. Organic Livestock Requirements. Accessed at https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files /media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf