What exactly makes a fish organic? Apparently, one that feeds on a nonorganic diet.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) advisory panel says that producers should be allowed to slap organic labels on farmed fish even if their diets include wild fish and other feed that isn’t organic itself—definitions that environmentalists say depart from the criteria for other certified organic animal food products.

The labeling criteria, approved yesterday by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory panel to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, allows up to a quarter of farmed fish feed to consist of wild fish, though not from endangered species. "There's no time table," for when the agency will take up the recommendations, Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the service, told ScienificAmerican.com today. "We'll review it as soon as we can." 

"Finally, maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of defining what's organic," Wally Stevens, executive director of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, told the Washington Post. "The challenge is to figure out how we can produce a healthy protein product with a proper regard to where the feed comes from."

The rules would also allow farmers to raise the fish in open-net cages, which rankles environmentalists concerned about the spread of sea lice into nearby waterways—a trend that could drive wild salmon to extinction. Critics say open cages also produce pollution.

"To slap an 'organic' label on this fish is deceptive and undermines the entire organic program," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. "If enacted, this gutting of the organic standards will not only allow sub-par organic fish to be sold with a premium, but will undermine consumer confidence in the entire organic marketplace."

Image of fish farm plant by iStockphoto/Vik Thomas