NOAA, FDA step up Gulf seafood inspection
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration have taken increased inspection measures to prevent oil-tainted seafood from the Gulf of Mexico reaching America's tables.
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 Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.
The first line of defense is NOAA's fishery area closures, which began May 2 and are adjusted as the spill trajectory changes. FDA supports 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 to 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 FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in a statement. '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. Shortly after the spill started, NOAA collected and tested seafood of commercial and recreational fish and shellfish species from areas where oil from the spill had not yet reached. The agency 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.
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.
FDA said it 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,' Lubchenco said. '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. ' Chris Gillis