How Safe is Gulf Seafood?

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Some reassuring news from the Institute of Food Technologists on the safety of seafood from the Gulf. Despite the photos of pelicans and turtles drenched in the oil from Deepwater Horizon, seafood from Louisiana, which provides one-third of the continental US’s seafood (that’s about 1.5 billion pounds a year) does not seem to be that adversely affected by the spill.

That’s according to Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafood, an oyster supplier and member of Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. Granted, Voisin has a vested interest in convincing folks to eat foods from the Big Easy again – since May 2009, the number of fishermen trolling the Gulf’s waters has dropped by nearly a third, and so has the number of pounds of seafood brought in by the state’s fishing community.

But Voisin told the food scientists that government officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who tested samples of shrimp and other fish as recently as a week ago, found very little evidence of contamination of these products. The biggest concern are polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are chemicals normally created by incomplete burning of oil, coal or wood but are also found in crude oil. PAHs have bee known to cause cancer in animals, and the Environmental Protection Agency lists some PAHs as probable human carcinogens. So far, Voisin, told me afterward, no samples from the Gulf region have tested anywhere near levels of concern. All have registered at undetectable levels so far, and that includes seafood from the near vicinity of the spill.

Ronald Klein, president of the non-profit Association of Food and Drug Officials, which advises governments, states and industry on regulations about food safety, noted in his talk that PAHs don’t stick around that long in fast-moving fish such as the ones caught in the Gulf. Klein, who is also part of the Alaska Food Safety and Sanitation Program and was part of the state’s efforts to assess the health impact of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, said that finned fish and seafood like shrimp and crab tend to metabolize these compounds quickly.

Things don’t look so good for oysters, since they tend to be attached to their environments, so to speak. Voisin estimates that oysters will probably be the last industry to bounce back in the Gulf, since it will take longer to verify that they are safe and free of oil contaminants.

That’s good news as far as the oil itself is concerned. The bigger concern for more people are the chemical dispersants being used to break up the spilled crude. These are slightly more problematic, since the EPA has limited knowledge of their potential toxicities. And nobody has ever used the dispersants at the volume they are being dumped into the Gulf by BP (the company scaled back its initial plans, but still…) As my colleague Bryan Walsh noted in his excellent breakdown of the pros and cons of dispersants a few weeks ago

Indeed, the dispersants debacle is one more sign of just how unprepared both industry and the government were for a spill of this magnitude. The government let BP pour hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf—and use them deep under water, something that had never been tried before—without any independent verification that this was safe.

So how do you and I know that seafood coming from the Gulf is safe? Thousands of samples have been tested so far, and Klein said that the process is relatively simple – it all starts with the familiar low-tech sniff and sight test. Sensory analysis of samples, he says, is the most powerful tool we have to picking up seafood contaminated by oil. PAHs can make the fish smell and taste “off.” At the moment, one-third of the Gulf is closed to recreational and commercial fishing; in order to reopen those waters, NOAA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Gulf states have to agree that fish is safe to eat. For that to happen, samples have to pass a first tier of sensory testing, and then be analyzed by another 10-member expert panel. These professional tasters and sniffers will test both raw and cooked versions of the seafood, and if 70% of them agree that there is no evidence of contamination, then the samples go through more sophisticated imaging analysis. If those come up negative, then the waters may be considered safe for fishing and the seafood okay to eat.

Voisin, for one, is hopeful that mother Nature will eventually do what she does best. A sixth generation oyster farmer, he has faith in the one “advantage” he sees in the warm waters off Louisiana – they’re home to a plethora of microbes that have evolved to digest contaminants and oil on their own. “Mother Nature bioremediates herself pretty well,” he said, and then admitted “But we are going to have a real challenge with ourbrand that is going to haunt us for some period of time.”

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