Seaweed, a promising food entangled in regulations

As the popularity of seaweed harvesting and consumption grows in America, a new Maine Public Radio investigation, along with other recent news, suggests that regulations – too strict in many cases, non-existent in others – could prevent the market from reaching its potential.

Seaweed is the collective name for a variety of marine plants and algae. It is a common food in many cultures, including Japan and among many coastal Native American tribes. Seaweed is valued for its versatility, health benefits, and high degree of sustainability compared to other foods. Various types of algae “can be used as fertilizers, animal and fish feed, biofuels, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics…. and have been marketed as a ‘superfood’ containing dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein , essential amino acids, calcium, iodine, magnesium and vitamins A, B, C and E.

Seaweed harvesting is a subject that has interested me at least since I talked about it in my 2016 book, Biting the hands that feed us: How fewer and smarter laws would make our food system more sustainablein the profile of a well-known California forager who helps paying customers harvest everything from mushrooms to seaweed.

The demand for seaweed has exploded in recent years. And growing and harvesting seaweed, which requires little input, can be lucrative. In Maine, commercial seaweed harvesting increased more than fivefold between 2018 and 2019. The annual global seaweed market is already at least $6 billion.

“The economy is wonderful,” Joth Davis, a kelp farmer in Washington state, told the Pew Charitable Trusts recently. “Kelp is not difficult to grow and it doesn’t use fresh water or added nutrients. The value proposition is really there.

Seaweed proponents are aware of some ongoing challenges to growing its popularity as a food, starting with its unsexy name: seaweed. But other challenges, especially reports suggesting regulations appear to be preventing seaweed sales from growing even faster, set a higher bar for increasing harvest and sales.

The first (and seemingly lowest) hurdle algae growers face is federal law. According to FDA rules, the Maine Public Radio report details, “Seaweed is not a food at all. Neither seafood nor vegetables, seaweed is regulated by the FDA as a spice due to its historical use as a dried product consumed in small amounts.

The most onerous regulations in question occur at the state level and relate primarily to food safety. This is unfortunate, considering seaweed is a relatively safe food. Foodborne illnesses caused by eating seaweed are rare worldwide, and even rarer in the United States. While some studies have noted “concerns about the potential of seaweed to contribute to foodborne infections”, others have found that seaweed contains antibacterial compounds that can prevent or destroy bacteria that can cause illnesses in the body. food origin.

A study on seaweed and food safety, published in 2020 by Connecticut Sea Grant, in partnership with the state government, has been touted as the first of its kind. While the Connecticut guide is undoubtedly useful, that usefulness is largely undermined by a faulty assumption that seaweed should be regulated like other sea foods.

Indeed, the study reports that Connecticut law regulates seaweed the same as other seafood. This is very problematic. Regulating water quality for algae production using standards for shellfish production, which Connecticut does, ignores the fact that algae, unlike shellfish, are not filter feeders. This means that seaweed is safe to eat when harvested from waters that would not be safe for shellfish harvesting, whether Connecticut allows it or not.

To their credit, the Maine researchers seem to recognize this. For one thing, the goal of their research is “to help develop appropriate regulations that will protect eaters without overburdening the growing industry.” And, as the Maine Public Radio report indicates, they recognize that regulations requiring algae to meet shellfish-related water quality standards are an unnecessarily onerous requirement.

“We wanted to do this [study] because maybe algae shouldn’t be treated like shellfish,” Professor Kristin Burkholder told MPR, helpfully distinguishing the study she’s leading from the one in Connecticut.

While the question of How? ‘Or’ What regulating algae seems to be an open challenge in many states, in other states the main regulatory challenge is more one of who that of How? ‘Or’ What.

Remember Joth Davis, the kelp farmer in Washington State? As Pew explains, he is also the only kelp farmer working legally in Washington waters. That’s because, despite the request, the state makes it nearly impossible for others to join Davis in his profession.

“Many others want to grow kelp in Washington waters, but Davis’ farm is the only one operating so far,” Pew reports. “The reason is simple: The state licensing process involves nine different agencies, and the paperwork is so cumbersome and time-consuming that few people care.”

Washington State is not alone. “Many coastal states have an equally cumbersome process for administering ocean aquaculture, [forcing] future farmers [to] deal with a tangle of paperwork,” Pew also reports.

Seaweed is a tasty, abundant, sustainable, profitable and healthy food. If you don’t eat it regularly, you probably have the government to thank for that fact.

Baylen Linnekin is a senior researcher at the Reason Foundation. This article first appeared on

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