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I used to know how to buy fish. I knew how to spot signs of freshness, pick out the best fillets and sniff the air like a bloodhound to make sure I didn't bring home anything that smelled like a wharf. But I was completely stumped the other day when I found myself staring at two rows of fresh, identical-looking salmon fillets spread out on the ice. One row was slightly more expensive and labeled "organic," while the other was labeled "wild-caught."
So, which one do I choose?
Confused, I asked the guy behind the counter, and he told me the farm-raised salmon was organic, but that wild salmon – which presumably swam freely through pristine mountain streams – was not organic. As it turns out, the fish guy knew his stuff. When I got home, all it took were a few clicks of a mouse to learn that the USDA-certified organic guidelines state that wild caught fish cannot be called organic. The reason? Wild salmon are carnivorous (meaning they eat other fish that are lower on the food chain) rather than a diet strictly composed of organic plant meal.
Farm-raised salmon, on the other hand, are designated as organic if they're fed a controlled diet of organic plant meal. The USDA website features several PDFs and documents expounding on the issue.
Meanwhile, several consumer groups advise people to remember that an organic label on fish tends to mean that it's farm-raised. Shoppers may not be as tempted to splurge on organic fish once we know the backstory: The environmental toll of fish farming raises substantial concerns in itself. Pollution from food and feces, along with diseases and escaped fish entering the wild gene pool are all reasons to steer clear of farmed fish — regardless of the organic label.
If farm-raised fish are the only item on the menu, try to choose omnivorous fish like catfish and tilapia over carnivorous fish like salmon and tuna that are often fed wild fish, in a process that further depletes our oceans.
In the end, I didn't buy any salmon at the fish counter that day because I didn't know which type to buy. This is a seriously complicated issue. The best thing to do is to brush up on do's and don'ts from the Seafood Watch organization at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by tapping into their handy guides for the best consumer choices. According to them, the best salmon choice is wild-caught Alaskan (coho, Sockeye, King, Pink and Red), with California, Oregon and Washington versions of the same a good second choice. Seafood Watch counsels consumers to avoid all farmed varieties — often marketed as "Atlantic" Salmon.
This time, however, I wandered over to the poultry case where I found two rows of fresh, identical-looking boneless, skinless chicken breasts. One row was labeled organic, while the other was labeled free range...