European Commission Promises Stricter Rules for Organic Products. But Will They Be Strict Enough?

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A salmon farm in Norway.

flickr / Franck Zecchin under Creative Commons

A salmon farm in Norway.

BERGEN, Norway — The European Commission announced in March that it will revise and strengthen the rules on organic farming practices. Its objective is to maintain consumer confidence by reinforcing and improving the system of control over organic farming, according to the press release announcing the reforms. The commission will also guarantee fair competition and high standards for all organic producers.

This is part of the commission’s attempt to remove obstacles to the development of organic farming in the European Union, EU. But it is not clear whether the new rules will be able to protect both the environment and consumers.

Over the past decade, the European Union market for organic products has grown four times in size and product variety. This includes increasing imports from non-EU countries. But the growth of the market introduces a potential risk for fraud that could have devastating effects on consumer confidence. Last year, the European Commission conducted a public survey with an online questionnaire on the future of organic farming in Europe. The results showed that more than 50 percent of the interviewees wanted more regulation in order to protect consumers from fraud.

One sector where advocates are increasingly worried about fraud and loose standards is Norway’s organic aquaculture industry. The Green Warriors of Norway, an environmental organization that opposes issuing organic certification to aquaculture producers, calls production of organic-farm-raised salmon “environment-damaging organic salmon fraud.” The Warriors believe that the salmon receive the same antibiotics as conventional salmon and endanger wild fish stocks.

Norway produces 64 percent of the farm-raised salmon, including some that the EU imports. Conventional salmon producers raise the fish in floating cages, first placing them in freshwater and later keeping them in the open ocean. The problem is that in order for this practice to be efficient, salmon farmers pack the cages with the salmon, leaving the fish vulnerable to communicable diseases. The salmon breeders treat the fish with pesticides for sea lice and antibiotics for infections. Those diseases and their treatments also pose a risk to wild salmon, which live and travel in the same waters.

A study by Norway’s Institute of Marine Research and its National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research showed that wild salmon also showed traces of the antibiotics that salmon farmers use for their captive-bred fish.

Companies that produce organic-farm-raised salmon still use similar practices. Although the maximum stocking density in the net pen has been reduced to comply with the EU regulation of 10 kilograms per cubic meter, the companies have the option to treat the fish with medication when necessary. But there are limits. If organic salmon is treated with more than three courses of medical products or antibiotics in one year, it cannot be sold as organic. These limits, however, assume that efficient monitoring protocols are in place to prevent companies from bending the rules. In the past, such monitoring has been minimal.

In fact, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority expressed concern in a May 2014 report that fish breeders have been unable to keep lice levels within the allowed limits. It noted that such infections affect all types of aquaculture, from wild to organic-farm-raised salmon. Given the authority’s fear that many breeders cannot cope with the problem, consumers can only hope that the new, stricter rules imposed by the European Commission will help.

Debio, the body that regulates and certifies organic aquaculture produce in Norway, guarantees compliance with the EU regulations. Regarding the European Commission’s proposal, Debio outlines the effects the rules on stricter monitoring and control will have on Norwegian organic salmon production. The regulations will introduce a requirement that at least 5 percent of the products must be sampled and tested. In addition, the rules will impose more unannounced inspections and will increase the minimum amount of organic fish feed that producers are required to use, from 20 to 50 percent.

With its new regulations, the European Commission considers organic aquaculture a new field of organic production, apart from organic agriculture. The commission recognizes that regulatory bodies don’t have as much experience with aquaculture as they do with farming. The commission expects that the organic aquaculture sector will continue to grow. This will eventually result in more experience and technical knowledge, but in the meantime, the organic aquaculture label may be full of loopholes. And although most farmers are required to develop a system for improving their environmental performance over time, organic aquaculture producers will continue to be exempt.

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