Gulf seafood safety and the government’s response
This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst.
Since oil began leaking from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April, concerns regarding the safety of the region’s seafood abounded. Now, more than two months after the leak was sealed, public officials, federal scientists and even President Obama have all been saying that seafood from the Gulf region is safe to eat. So why aren’t consumers digging in?
Several local leaders from the region impacted by the oil spill addressed this topic last week during the most recent hearing of the National Commission on the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, D.C.
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Scott Angelle was among several state officials from the region who have touted the importance of seafood to the local economy. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has gone as far as saying that the Gulf seafood has been “tested more than any other food in the history of the universe.”
Angelle testified that he repeatedly had urged BP to put forward $75 million to promote tourism and seafood in his state. He asserted that BP officials had been slow to respond to his state for help in revitalizing Louisiana’s seafood industry—that is, he said, until they learned he was testifying at the meeting.
Timothy Fitzgerald, a marine scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, suggested to the panel that the public perception may be difficult to overcome because of the tremendous size of the spill: More than 5.9 million barrels of oil leaked, and more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants were discharged into the gulf. Fitzgerald highlighted that the key to overcoming this hurdle will involve increased education and outreach toward consumers; it is an important route to restoring public trust, he claimed. He said the public needs “reassurances and specifics” that the government has long term plans to ensure that food remains safe to consume.
For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began reopening specified waters to commercial fishing in Mississippi and Louisiana by early August. Additional waters in those states as well as in Alabama and Florida were reopened by early September. Since then, the FDA has been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to implement a surveillance sampling program of seafood products at Gulf Coast area primary processing plants—currently targeting oysters, crabs and shrimp—which, due to their biology, could retain contaminants longer than finfish. If adulterated seafood is found on the market, both the FDA and the states have the authority to seize such products and remove them from the food supply.
According to FDA, there are two ways that oil can contaminate seafood: The first is through the presence of certain levels of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are known to be carcinogenic. These elements can be particularly harmful if consumed in sufficient amounts over a prolonged period of time. The second way seafood would be considered inedible is if it smells like a petroleum product. While petroleum taint alone is not necessarily harmful, under the law, it is considered adulterated and is not permitted to be sold as food.
Evidence has also suggested that the dispersants used during the Deepwater Horizon response are low in human toxicity and unlikely to pose a public health risk. Nonetheless, the federal government continues to monitor the use of dispersants and test seafood.
Yet, in spite of these statutes and strategies, an August poll from the Market Dynamics Research Group, found that of those who stated they were unlikely to visit Louisiana because of the oil spill, roughly 25 percent said they would be more likely to visit if they knew the seafood was safe. In the same poll, 48 percent of respondents believed that restaurants serving Louisiana seafood put customers at risk, and 44 percent believed commercial fishing was allowed in areas where oil is present. Unfortunately, perception is reality and according to Lt. Gov. Angelle, his reality is a suffering local industry with diminished demand for Gulf seafood.
In his prepared remarks, Fitzgerald outlined a series of recommendations that he said could go a long way towards restoring public confidence in Gulf of Mexico seafood:
- “Empower fisherman to conduct more targeted testing of their catch.
- Articulate and make public the details of a long term testing plan.
- Provide updated information to the public about dispersants in seafood.
- Make a concerted effort to reach out to consumers to understand what is needed to regain their confidence in Gulf seafood.”
Americans likely spend more time on Facebook and Twitter than on the FDA or NOAA websites. Government agencies could spread the word on seafood safety using mass advertising through more commonly surfed media outlets such as these as well as television commercial advertising similar to the ad campaign BP initiated to promote its efforts following the oil spill disaster.
For the sake of our environment and economy (not to mention our health), local leaders and public officials need to continue to work together to ensure, not only that our nation’s fisheries are surveyed and managed effectively, but that the public is actively engaged in the process as well.
Photo Credit: fille de la ville