The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are taking additional steps to enhance inspection measures designed to ensure that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico reaching America’s tables is safe to eat.
The federal government, in conjunction with Gulf states regulatory agencies, is playing an active role in ensuring the safety of seafood harvested from federal and state waters. The federal government, led by FDA and NOAA, is taking a multi-pronged approach to ensure that seafood from Gulf waters is not contaminated by oil. The strategy includes precautionary closures, increased seafood testing inspections and a re-opening protocol.
“Closing harvest waters that could be exposed to oil protects the public from potentially contaminated seafood because it keeps the product from entering the food supply,” said Dr. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Combining the expertise of NOAA and FDA is the best way to use our scientific abilities to help the American people in this emergency.”
The first line of defense is NOAA’s fishery area closures, which began May 2 and are adjusted as the spill trajectory changes. The FDA has concurred with this approach. The current federal closure of 32 percent of federal waters encompasses areas known to be affected by oil, either on the surface or below the surface, as well as areas projected to be affected by oil in the next 48 – 72 hours. The closed area also includes a five-nautical mile buffer as a precaution around the known location of oil.
“FDA and NOAA are working together to ensure that seafood from the Gulf is not contaminated with oil,” said Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of food and drugs. “It is important to coordinate seafood surveillance efforts on the water, at the docks and at seafood processors to ensure seafood in the market is safe to eat.”
To help prevent tainted seafood from reaching the market, NOAA created a seafood sampling and inspection plan. Just after the beginning of the spill, it collected and tested seafood of commercial and recreational fish and shellfish species from areas where oil from the spill had not yet reached. NOAA is using ongoing surveillance to evaluate new seafood samples to determine whether contamination is present outside the closed area. If fish samples have elevated levels of oil compounds, NOAA will consider whether to expand closed areas.
The federal effort to ensure seafood is not contaminated with oil will also include NOAA’s dockside sampling of fish products in the Gulf. NOAA will verify that catch was caught outside the closed area using information from vessel monitoring systems that track the location of a vessel or information from on-board observers. If tainted fish are found in dockside sampling, NOAA will notify FDA and state health officials for further action.
The FDA operates a mandatory safety program for all fish and fishery products under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Public Health Service Act and related federal regulations.
The FDA will first target oysters, crab, and shrimp, which due to their biology retain contaminants longer than finfish, for additional sampling. Finfish rapidly metabolize the oil so the risk of exposure is far less than the other seafood species previously mentioned. The sample collection will target primarily seafood processors who buy seafood directly from the harvester. Monitoring this first step in the distribution chain will help to keep any potentially contaminated seafood from consumers.
FDA has also created a focused inspection assignment designed to help seafood processors review their individual source controls to ensure proper documentation and exclusion of any seafood obtained from unknown sources from entering commerce.
The two agencies are also establishing a re-opening protocol. NOAA will reopen closed areas only if it is assured, based on consultation with FDA, that fish products within the closed area meet FDA standards for public health and wholesomeness.
“We recognize that the effects of the oil spill continue to grow as oil continues to flow,” said Dr. Lubchenco. “As remediation efforts continue, it may be possible to alleviate some of the economic harm caused by the oil spill by reopening previously closed areas. NOAA will reopen areas only if assured that fish products taken from these areas meet FDA standards for public health.”
Before the BP oil spill, NOAA operated seafood inspection services in the Gulf — consisting of a handful of personnel — on a fee-for-service basis for the seafood industry.
Today, samples collected as part of NOAA’s efforts are sent to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss., where federal and state sensory testing analysts trained to detect certain thresholds of chemicals, which are not normal background odors in seafood, evaluate the catch. Samples are also sent to NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for chemical testing.
According to the most recent data available, seafood samples had been collected during 18 sampling missions by NOAA and contracted fishing vessels in areas inside and outside the closed fishery area.
From those 18 sampling missions, 640 fish and shrimp samples were processed for either sensory or chemical testing. Of the 640 samples, 118 fish samples were presented to the team of 10 expert assessors for sensory testing in the Pascagoula Laboratory. Four hundred sixteen fish and shrimp samples were sent to NOAA’s Seattle testing laboratory for chemical analysis.
“FDA has set up a hotline for reporting seafood safety issues,” said Commissioner Hamburg. “We encourage fisherman and consumers to report potential contamination to 1-888-INFO-FDA.”