Food & Drink Shrimp tales

These shrimp are not organic, but future generations of shrimp will be if they qualify for certification under the guidelines of the USDA National Organic Program, which is expected to release standards for organic aquaculture this fall.

USDA still mulling organic guidelines for aquaculture

In Forrest Gump, Bubba says there are shrimp kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp this, and shrimp that, but he forgot one. In his defense, the United States Department of Agriculture doesn't exactly know what it is, either. Organic shrimp, a simple-enough-sounding product, is proving to be difficult to define and accurately label, as one Texas company has discovered.

The USDA once maintained that any shrimp meeting the organic standards for livestock could be labeled USDA organic but, in 2004, the agency decided to revisit how it defined organic aquaculture, leaving some shrimp farms in limbo.

Permian Sea Shrimp, the West Texas organic shrimp farm, falls under the category of organic shrimp but lacks the USDA seal. `See "Saltwater gold," October 14, 2004.` It has actively pursued the USDA for organic certification and looks forward to October when the National Organic Program is expected to publish new guidelines for organic approval.

"We're hanging in there," said Bart Reid, owner and marine biologist. Permian Sea Shrimp is located on a toxin-free, underground ocean in Imperial, Texas, and raises its shrimp on a strict diet of all-natural organic ingredients.

While Permian Sea Shrimp is waiting for the official USDA seal, other shrimp farms are sneaking by on a technicality and advertising their product as USDA-approved.

National Public Radio's May 13 edition of Living on Earth credited Florida's OceanBoy Farms as the first company to receive USDA certification for organic shrimp, a claim OceanBoy's website,, supports.

But OceanBoy's assertion that it is the "largest commercially viable USDA Certified Organic producer of shrimp in the United States" isn't quite accurate. According to Quality Certification Services, which granted OceanBoy its USDA approval, OceanBoy received certification under the old directive, which was discarded last year. The USDA then extended OceanBoy an 18-month grace period in which to use up the USDA labels it had printed while certified under the original guidelines. There is currently no organic aquaculture certification to which those labels correspond.

QCS offers organic certification accredited by the USDA National Organic Program.

"If we were to do another certification right now, it would be based on QCS guidelines, which look very much like the USDA Livestock Standards, just tailored to shrimp," said Marty Mesh, executive director of QCS. "`OceanBoy` would not get the USDA seal. But, it's kind of misleading to consumers to say 'certified organic,' because people still ask 'Well, does it meet USDA guidelines?'"

Strutts Armstrong, vice president of sales and marketing at OceanBoy, said he has not heard of an 18-month grace period and that OceanBoy was "grandfathered" approval.

"We want the USDA to set the standards as high as possible as soon as possible," Armstrong said. "There seems to be a lot of confusion out there, so we want the standards set so there is no confusion."

If the USDA publishes guidelines in the fall as planned, USDA-certified organic shrimp could be in supermarkets next year. Mesh added, "Once the final rules are in place, I assume OceanBoy and Permian will be able to use the USDA approval."

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