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Gulf Seafood Safety: A Primer

Sea food safety 1Sandra O'Neill, a fish biologist from NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, prepares a tissue sample for sensory and chemical analysis.

Protecting public health and ensuring the safety of seafood is a shared priority for NOAA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Gulf states, and Gulf fishermen in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. One of the first actions taken was to close oiled waters to fishing, so fishermen would not catch tainted seafood and bring them back to shore. Opening those waters after oil receded required extensive testing. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about Gulf seafood safety.

How is Gulf seafood tested?
NOAA, the FDA and the Gulf states agreed to follow the same plan: first, oiled waters had to be closed to fishing. Once oil was no longer observed in the area, seafood samples were taken, following a sampling plan approved by the FDA. The closer an area was to the site of the spill, the more samples were taken. Once back at the lab, all the samples from that area had to pass both a sensory (smell and taste) and a chemical test. If even one sample failed, the area could not be opened to fishing.

What do the results show?
Gulf seafood is passing tests with flying colors. For each of the 12 hydrocarbons of concern picked up in the chemical test, the seafood is routinely testing 100 to 1000 times lower than FDA’s pass-fail threshold known as the level of concern. Seafood experts are confident that contaminants from the oil or dispersant would be detected by the tests, and state unequivocally that Gulf seafood from waters open to fishing is safe from oil and dispersant contamination.

How much Gulf seafood would a person have to eat to reach the level of risk FDA sets?
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, one of the state partners working to ensure Gulf seafood safety, recently calculated that a person eating 63 pounds of shrimp or crab, 5 pounds of oysters, or 9 pounds of fish every day for five years would still not exceed the FDA’s level of concern.

How do fish, shrimp, crabs and shellfish clear oil and dispersants from their bodies?
Vertebrates, including humans, mammals and fish, have livers that metabolize oil, changing it into a different form so that it can be excreted from the body. Within days of exposure, fish have expelled the oil through bile, leaving their muscle tissues, the part of the fish we eat, free from contamination. Shrimp and crabs also have an ability to do this, though it takes a little longer. Shellfish have the most limited ability. Because of these differences between species, the testing system was built to ensure they were tested separately.

Sea Food Safety 2Kenneth Powell, a chemist with the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory, and Mark Myers, a fish biologist from the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, prepare tissue samples for chemical analysis.

How many samples have been tested?
Around 5,000 samples have been tested from federal waters alone (those waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore). Since more than one individual organisms can make up a sample (for instance, a shrimp sample contains much more than one shrimp), the number of individual animals tested is even higher.

Is Gulf seafood safe from dispersants?
Yes. Scientists proved that fish can excrete dispersant even more efficiently than they process oil, and last year NOAA and FDA scientists developed a laboratory test that can detect even trace amounts of dispersant in fish flesh. Every sample passed that test, with over 99% of the samples having undetectable amounts – that is, lower than the detection limit of the highly sensitive equipment.

Because of the hard work of NOAA, FDA and Gulf state seafood experts, and the cooperation of Gulf fishermen, consumers can feel confident that Gulf seafood is safe to eat.