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.

Recently, 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 farmed salmon.

In fact, as our joint reporting found, “organic” farmed salmon is only slightly preferable to standard farmed salmon.

And it costs about as much 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, by a company called Creative Salmon.

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 is generally made from fish meal, fish oil, poultry byproducts, grains, soy, vegetable oils, vitamins, and minerals.)

[Healthy Skeptic's note: All of the seller's statements later proved untrue, except that the company's farmed salmon get organic wheat versus conventional grain.]

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?

U.S. may approve “organic” farmed seafood by 2017
No U.S. company is currently allowed to sell wild or farmed seafood labeled "organic".

Now, following many years of debate, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) appears poised to allow U.S. production and sale of “organic” seafood.

Under the agency’s proposed rules, any non-aquatic feed must be certified organic, except supplemental vitamin and minerals.

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.

Incredibly, wild fish would not be eligible for the organic label — a stunningly unfair and illogical stance.

The USDA was set to propose standards for farmed organic seafood last year, possibly putting so-called organic salmon on store shelves by 2017.

However, that will only happen if and when the USDA actually finishes the rules, and aquaculture companies decide to act on the opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, as the Associated Press reported, “The discussions [within the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board] have been marked by tensions over what organic fish should eat and whether some of them can be raised in ocean cages called net pens.” (AP 2015)

Sadly, the 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.

So it's quite clear that organic salmon farms will not be safer for surrounding fish and ecosystems.

Organic seafood rules won't match organic livestock standards
The USDA sets, defines, and regulates the use and meaning of “organic” on food labels, including meat and poultry.

It seems very unlikely that the USDA’s final rules for organic seafood could or will match the high standards set for organic livestock.

Under USDA rules, organic livestock must be fed only certified-organic feed and raised on certified organic land.

And USDA organic standards prohibit:

  • Antibiotics*
  • Growth hormones
  • Artificial ingredients
  • Genetic engineering
  • Sewer sludge fertilizers
  • Ionizing radiation (irradiation)
  • Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides

*Antibiotics are allowed to treat disease, but the treated animal cannot be sold as organic. Pain medications and de-worming drugs are allowed.

Healthy living conditions and attentive care must be provided, 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”.

It's obvious that raising salmon in net pens and feeding them pellets does not "accommodate their natural behavior".

Wild salmon are born in rivers, then range and feed freely through thousands of miles of open ocean before returning to their birth rivers to spawn.

Organic farmed salmon: Not much better than other farmed salmon
Organic farmed salmon shares undesirable characteristics with conventional farmed salmon.

Farmed salmon are raised in net pens — often referred to as feedlots of the sea — that are tethered offshore in the open ocean.

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 their flesh a natural-looking reddish hue.)

Canadian producers of organic farmed salmon claim that their fish have about twice as much space vs. conventional farmed salmon, but that still constitutes very close, wholly unnatural confinement.

Critically, salmon-farm pens are proven breeding grounds for sea lice and viruses that sicken and kill farmed and wild salmon alike.

Worse, the net pens on most salmon farms — organic and 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.

Parasites and viruses spread by salmon farms in Norway, Scotland, and Ireland devastated wild Atlantic salmon populations, almost to the point of extinction.

Marine biologists have documented the similar threats posed by salmon farms in British Columbian waters, which have been opposed by local fishing communities but supported by the Canadian government … despite obvious, egregious violations of Canadian law.

To learn more about the dangers of salmon farms, and the unhealthy nature of farmed salmon, see Salmon Farm Sickness Caught on Video and its links to related articles from the Vital Choices newsletter.

Nutritional and purity flaws of farmed salmon
Farmed salmon are raised on an unnatural diet — heavy in grains and/or soy and vegetable oils — that makes it much fattier than wild salmon.

Although farmed salmon typically has omega-3 fat levels comparable to those found in wild salmon, its diet give it far higher levels of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids.

The key nutritional problem with farmed salmon is its very high omega-6 content, which seriously blunts the benefit of its 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.

In response to a query by Caroline, Canada’s Creative Salmon 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), essential minerals and vitamins.

(The diets of wild salmon — which vary by species and age — include insects, invertebrates and plankton, small fish, squid, eels, and shrimp.)

Compared with wild salmon, standard farmed salmon has much higher levels of PCBs and other man-made pollutants, and there's no evidence that organic farmed salmon are any better in this regard.

So, compared with standard farmed salmon, “organic” farmed salmon are not substantially healthier to eat.

Canada’s organic aquaculture standard
In 2012, Canada enacted Organic Aquaculture Standards for farmed seafood.

The standards generally prohibit the use of antibiotics, herbicides and genetically modified organisms, and allow the use of parasiticides (to kill sea lice) only as a last resort.

However, the language of the standards reveals that prohibited substances can be used if the health of the fish requires them: a very large loophole.

The standards were proposed by the Canadian General Standards Board, whose membership includes aquaculture companies as well as consumer and environmental advocates.

The initial proposal would’ve allowed the use of antibiotics and parasiticides as on conventional salmon farms, and the current prohibition on antibiotics and restriction on use of parasiticides were included only after strong protests.

As the Living Oceans Society told The Edmonton Journal, Canada's organic seafood standard “has as many holes as a net pen,” which explains why that organization voted against the standard.

Another member of the Canadian General Standards Board — the Conservation Council of New Brunswick — voted against the “weak” standard because it allows open net-pens, despite their detrimental impacts on wild salmon.

In fact, because Canadian organic salmon can be raised in ocean-based net pens, the regulations contradict the General Standards Board's own principles for organic seafood:
"Protect the environment, minimize benthic (seafloor) degradation and erosion and water quality degradation, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health”. (PWGSC 2014)

Canadian and European organic farmed seafood
Canada and the European Union have already established standards for organic seafood.

So U.S. consumers in some regions can find imported organic farmed salmon, which costs about as much as wild salmon.

Wegmans supermarkets recently began selling imported organic seafood, while Whole Foods Market told the Associated Press that it will wait for issuance of U.S. rules before selling seafood labeled organic.

Canada’s Creative Salmon company raises king/chinook salmon in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Clayoquot Sound.

The Irish Organic Salmon Company, which raises Atlantic salmon, is owned by Marine Harvest, the huge Norwegian company that owns controversial salmon farms along the British Columbian coast.

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 help protect wild salmon from the dangers posed by farmed salmon is to seek out the wild fish and shun the farm-raised fraud.