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Among Some Experts, Questions of Seafood Safety Persist in Aftermath of Gulf Oil Spill
By Janice H. Dada, MPH, RD, CSSD, CDE, CHES

The BP oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico is now on record as the largest accidental marine oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history. The spill stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher that resulted from a drilling rig explosion that killed 11 workers. The spill has caused extensive damage to wildlife and their habitats in the Gulf region. At a time when the U.S. economy is struggling and the Gulf region is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation five years earlier, the spill has wreaked havoc on the fishing and tourism industries. 

Many measures were taken in a desperate attempt to stop the oil from continuing to gush from the rig, including the use of dispersants, or chemicals used to break up the spilled oil. But many environmentalists oppose the use of dispersants because of limited information regarding their long-term effects.

Many people now question the safety of seafood coming from the Gulf region. The FDA has stated that the seafood is safe for consumption despite the oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico, and the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) have set up testing programs for Gulf seafood and consumer hotlines for people to stay informed. The FDA’s website lists a phone number (888-INFO-FDA) people can call with questions or concerns related to Gulf seafood safety. The website includes general information about this issue, stating: “Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time.”

To find out what other experts have to say about this important food safety issue, Today’s Dietitian spoke with David Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, and Marianne Cufone, an environmental attorney, consumer advocate, and director of the fish program for Food & Water Watch.

We asked both experts whether it’s reasonable for the FDA to suggest that Gulf seafood is safe to eat. Cufone points out that about two thirds of the Gulf remained open to fishing during the oil spill. But she says the oil shouldn’t be people’s only concern: “The FDA and NOAA have failed to [adequately] test for the dispersant used there. Nearly 2 million gallons, an unprecedented amount of chemical, was pumped into the Gulf. Recent studies have indicated the oil and dispersant are getting into marine life and consequently our food system. This is very troubling.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the dispersant used [COREXIT 9500A],” Cufone continues, “and what we do know is that according to the product’s material safety data sheet, it includes three substances that must be identified as hazards according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and it has been identified as an ‘immediate health hazard’ under the requirement indicated by EPA’s [the Environmental Protection Agency] hazard categories. Further, the substances in the product are included in EPA’s list of toxic substances.”

However, according to the FDA’s website, “The dispersants used during the Deepwater Horizon response have a low potential to bioaccumulate in seafood and are low in human toxicity, therefore there is likely little public health risk associated with consuming seafood that has been exposed to them. Nonetheless, as a precaution, the U.S. government will continue to monitor the use of dispersants and test seafood that may have been exposed to them. It is possible for the dispersants to ‘taint’ seafood with a chemical smell. Even though the dispersant ‘taint’ may not be harmful, seafood possessing the chemical smell is considered adulterated and not permitted for sale.”

Andrews is concerned about the FDA’s decision to lower standards for measuring the safety of seafood after oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, allowing the cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) safety standard to be set at a ratio of 1 in 100,000 risk of developing cancer.1  In the New Carissa oil spill on the west coast of Oregon and California, a more stringent safety level was set at a ratio of 1 in 1 million risk.1 Andrews believes this same ratio should apply to the Gulf spill.

NOAA does the majority of its testing using the “sniff test,” followed by chemical testing for PAHs. According to NOAA, using the sense of smell is one of the best methods for determining the safety and acceptability of seafood. Currently, the association is sniff testing 10 species of seafood from the Gulf, including shrimp, different types of snapper and grouper, and possibly croaker, from fishing areas that have been closed and are being evaluated for possible reopening.2 Andrews states that while the human nose is extremely sensitive for detecting oil and gasoline, the Environmental Working Group would like to see a greater number of analytical tests performed on seafood with full disclosure of results to the public.

As for the implications of the spill and the use of dispersants, Cufone says since the Gulf was producing about 1.3 billion tons of seafood annually (equal to about $700 million dollars) prior to the spill, it is “likely that there will be far-reaching impacts to Gulf fish, fishermen, and coastal communities for some time from this disaster. Recovery from this is likely to take many years, and many fishermen probably will be unable to make a living from the water as they once had.”

Andrews says, “The seafood industry will have to deal with long-term ecological impacts. The long-term effects to our Gulf ecosystem and future seafood harvests are [unknown].”

According to Cufone, this is not the time for consumers to turn to imported seafood. “In the U.S., we inspect less than 2% of seafood imported for contaminants like antibiotics, other chemicals, and ‘filth,’ a term used to mean rat and mouse hair, insects, and other matter,” she explains. “We import about 80% of the seafood we eat, and about half of that is farm raised. A number of problems are associated with imported farmed fish, and many of the places our seafood comes from have lower health, safety, environmental, and labor standards than here in the U.S. We actually export about 70% of the seafood we produce here in the U.S. to other countries willing to pay more for our higher standards and then import cheaper, lower-quality fish for U.S. consumers.”

Cufone directs readers interested in exploring healthful seafood options—healthful not only for people but also for the planet—to the recently released “Smart Seafood Guide” by Food & Water Watch, which is available at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/seafood/guide.

“It is a shame that our country and the oil industry were not better prepared to deal with a spill of this magnitude,” says Andrews. “As is the case with many public health and environmental issues, we have a government system that evaluates the costs and damages after a disaster/spill or after a toxic chemical has already been added to children’s products.” 

The FDA and NOAA continue to assure the public that seafood from the Gulf region is safe to eat, but some food safety consumer advocates think there is plenty of reason to be cautious. For more information, visit www.fda.gov, www.ewg.org, and www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

— Janice H. Dada, MPH, RD, CSSD, CHES, is a dietitian, college nutrition instructor, and freelance writer based in southern California. Her areas of expertise include diabetes, weight management, wellness, and sports nutrition.

1. Flynn D.  FDA lowers the bar for Gulf seafood safety. Food Safety News. September 8, 2010. Available at: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/09/fda-raised-the-bar-for-gulf-seafood-safety. Accessed September 13, 2010.

2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Passing the ‘sniff test.’ Available at: http://www.noaa.gov/features/03_protecting/sniff_test.html. Accessed September 13, 2010.