The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US 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 first line of defense is NOAA’s fishery area closures, which began May 2 and are adjusted as the spill trajectory changes. FDA has concurred with this approach. The current federal closure of 32% 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, Commissioner of Food and Drugs.
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.
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.
FDA will first target oysters, crab, and shrimp, which due to their biology retain contaminants longer than finfish. 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 that buy seafood directly from the harvester. The agency 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 reopening 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.
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 MS, 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 WA for chemical testing.
“FDA has set up a hotline for reporting seafood safety issues,” said Hamburg. “We encourage fisherman and consumers to report potential contamination to 1-888-INFO-FDA.”