The Sea Turtle Restoration Project of the Turtle Island Restoration Network is signed-on to a coalition with other concerned non-profit organizations in calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to improve its flawed seafood safety calculations which may be putting Gulf of Mexico residents consuming their average amount of seafood at risk. Click here to download the coalition letter to the FDA.
Contamination of Gulf seafood has been a concern in the wake of the horrific BP oil spill this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal agencies moved rapidly to re-open fishing grounds weeks after the areas were dotted with oil slicks. Shrimp trawlers, which have killed over 100 sea turtles during the summer disaster, were found guilty of trawling in areas closed during the oil spill. An excellent summary of concerns was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Download and read the commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association "Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill."
Recently, more evidence on the flawed risk assessment calculations performed by the FDA has made news headlines, see below for the full story.
Groups skeptical of federal seafood-safety testing
12/17/2010, Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter
Environmental groups are stressing the need for more independent data on the safety of Gulf Coast seafood after a study released last week found flaws in the federal methods for determining the region's seafood consumption levels.
Several Gulf groups are conducting their own testing of seafood from regions hit by the oil spill, saying that they do not trust the data federal agencies have used in declaring areas safe for fishing.
Groups also say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved too hastily to open up fishing areas, pointing to the recent reclosing of 4,213 square miles of an 8,403-square-mile royal red shrimp fishing area after a fisherman caught tarballs in his shrimp trawler.
"The rush to say that seafood is safe is premature and hurts the brand more than if we all just waited a little bit and gave the science the time to tell us what's really happening out there," said Casey DeMoss Roberts, assistant director of science and water policy at the Gulf Restoration Network.
In the study released last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that FDA underestimated the amount of seafood that the typical Gulf Coast resident consumes. That information was used in calculations for safe levels of contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in seafood, chemicals that remain from the BP PLC oil spill.
FDA, according to the study, based its estimates of consumption on national data and used the average American male adult weighing 175 pounds as its basis for its calculations. It assumed that a Gulf resident eats seafood about twice a week and shrimp once a week. One serving of shrimp, according to the FDA, consists of about four jumbo shrimp.
The Natural Resources Defense Council surveyed 547 Gulf Coast residents on their seafood eating habits and found that their consumption rates were from 3.6 to 12.1 times higher than FDA estimates. The survey also found that Vietnamese-Americans had especially high seafood consumption rates in fish, shrimp, oyster and crab.
"Four shrimp a week is not even an appetizer for some folks around here," said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Roberts said the NRDC's results were not surprising.
"As soon as we saw the consumption rates FDA had determined, it was laughable. They didn't even pass the straight-face test," she said.
The NRDC and more than 30 environmental and public interest groups sent a letter last week to FDA complaining of the discrepancy in consumption rates.
"We've been requesting that they adapt their standards for months and months and months now. This letter isn't the first time they've heard an outcry from people," said Peter Brabeck, environmental monitor for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
FDA defended its use of national data on seafood consumption.
"FDA is not aware of any published data upon which we can rely for seafood consumption figures other than what we used," said Sebastian Cianci, a spokesman for FDA, in an e-mail to Greenwire. He said the agency is reviewing the NRDC study to see if it is a suitable source of consumption data
Beyond seafood consumption rates, Gulf environmental groups say FDA's testing and monitoring methods are inadequate and rely on too few samples. When NOAA opened up 5,130 square miles of Gulf waters for fishing in September, it based the opening on sensory tests of 123 samples and chemical analyses of 183 specimens composited into 27 samples.
Since it is difficult to statistically represent the entire Gulf of Mexico, FDA "adopted a sampling strategy that gave us great confidence that the samples collected were adequately representative of the worst-case scenario for oil spill and dispersant residues," Cianci said.
FDA and NOAA continue to monitor the Gulf, and Cianci said they have not found merit in any reports of tainted seafood. But many environmental groups are carrying out their own sampling and gathering results from independent labs, citing stories of fishermen finding tarballs in fishing nets.
Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr, working with technical adviser and chemist Wilma Subra and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, has collected samples from the west edge of the oil spill's damage all the way to the Louisiana-Mississippi border. On Monday, Orr released data on oysters, blue crab, mussels, shrimp and other seafood showing levels of PAHs and petroleum hydrocarbons.
He has not compared the data to any standards of safe levels because he said just finding any standards on total petroleum hydrocarbons has proved difficult. According to Subra, FDA has no established level of concern for total petroleum hydrocarbons.
"I don't think we've really had to deal with having very much petroleum contamination in seafood before," Orr said. "I don't think [FDA was] prepared for dealing with something like this. I don't think many of us were prepared for something like this."
Orr said the seafood looked "perfect" when collected. Because of this, environmental groups say they want federal agencies to abandon the practice of performing a sensory test, or what Brabeck calls a "sniff test," as a first step to test for contamination.
"It's crazy to me that that's actually considered the legitimate form of testing," Brabeck said.
A panel of NOAA experts observes and sniffs the seafood samples sent in from states, and if the samples pass the test, they are sent off to an FDA lab for chemical analyses of composite tissue samples. If the samples pass those chemical tests, the area from which they came can be reopened for fishing.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has taken a different strategy with its sampling. Started 10 years ago to test pollution from refineries, the brigade is now handing out sampling kits to residents to test seafood, air and water. Residents collect samples, wrap them in foil or put them in a nonreactive container, and ship them off in bags to a certified lab. The Bucket Brigade then interprets the data for residents.
"It's trying to get the community ... to sample what they think needs to be sampled," Brabeck said, adding that it also gives a voice to the communities that have been affected by the spill.
The local knowledge is key, Brabeck said.
"These people have been there for generations, a lot of these people six generations of fishing," he said. "These guys, they know what their environment looks like. They know what their water looks like before and after the spill."