Monday, June 14, 2010

During Gulf Coast Visit #4, President Obama Declares Seafood Safe

Can the federal government adequately monitor seafood contamination? And will the new BP escrow fund include cash for eaters poisoned by contaminated seafood?
Last Fall during the Swine Flu pandemic, pork sales plummeted due to consumer fears that the meat could make them ill. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack began a foodie public relations campaign to save the industry, and repeatedly mentioned publicly that he was eating pork products in an effort to graphically illustrate that pork and Swine Flu had nothing in common except the name. President Obama has now adopted a similar public relations campaign for Gulf Coast seafood, amid ongoing worries that the BP oil spill has made it unsafe to eat.

It's hardly convincing, however, for those who understand how food contamination--and FDA food safety inspections--work. As of yesterday, only 18 federal seafood sampling missions had been conducted since the spill began on April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank.

"I'm announcing a comprehensive, coordinated and multi-agency initiative to ensure that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat. Now, I had some of that seafood for lunch, and it was delicious," President Obama said, during a press conference following his lunch  during a business roundtable in Gulfport, Mississippi. "So let me be clear. Seafood from the Gulf today is safe to eat."

President Obama ended the day at Tacky Jack's seafood restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama, where he ordered crab claws and crawfish tails, to again graphically illustrate that Gulf Coast seafood is safe (above).

The federal plan
During his press conference, the President announced that every effort is being made to both protect Gulf Coast fisheries, as well as inspect seafood headed for market that might be contaminated with oil. The President said that beyond closing off waters that have been or are likely to be exposed to oil, the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are increasing inspections of seafood processors, strengthening surveillance programs and monitoring fish that are caught just outside of restricted areas, as well as coordinating efforts with the states, which are implementing similar plans.

NOAA and FDA put out an advisory concurrent with the President's remarks that detailed inspection efforts:

According to the most recent data available, seafood samples had been collected during 18 sampling missions by NOAA and contracted fishing vessels in areas inside and outside the closed fishery area. From those 18 sampling missions, 640 fish and shrimp samples were processed for either sensory or chemical testing. Of the 640 samples, 118 fish samples were presented to the team of 10 expert assessors for sensory testing in the Pascagoula Laboratory. 416 fish and shrimp samples were sent to NOAA’s Seattle testing laboratory for chemical analysis.

The FDA will first target oysters, crab, and shrimp, which due to their biology retain contaminants longer than finfish, for additional sampling.

How good is random sampling? How many samples need to be taken? Can FDA handle it?
"Will help" is the key phrase in the above statement. The government is not insuring, beyond doubt, that contaminated seafood is not getting into the American foodchain.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of seafood can potentially come out of the nation's second largest fishery during the coming months, and FDA has neither enough trained inspectors, nor enough money, to do aggressive and comprehensive sampling.

FDA has a historically poor record with food safety testing to begin with. In fact, it tests less than one percent of all food that makes it into the American food chain. Despite the creation of the President's Food Safety Working Group last year, FDA is still under funded and under staffed, thanks to the fact that the Senate has made no movement on the food safety Bill that has now been gathering dust on lawmakers' desks for almost a year. The House passed landmark food safety legislation last July, the first in fifty years, but the Senate keeps putting it off. (Above: The water that surrounds Tacky Jack's is contaminated with oil; see below)

There's no reason to believe that the FDA can adequately monitor the seafood supply, just as there's been no reason to believe that the federal government has been as activist as possible in dealing with the oil spill.

The sniff test
NOAA and FDA's combined efforts to get more seafood inspectors have included training people to "sniff" seafood, under the idea that the nose is the most sensitive monitoring organ, and seafood contaminated with petroleum can best be detected by smell. But there's no point in actually conducting the sniff testing while live creatures are still swimming in contaminated waters, according to NOAA's own Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for the seafood inspection program, who spoke with Food Safety News.

Wilson said that Before NOAA can begin its testing program, the spill has to be contained, and the ocean water "where the seafood is living and growing and breathing" has to clear a quality test.

"There's no point in testing product that's swimming around in oil," Wilson said. He added that there's also "no point" in having inspectors dockside for tests, because "you need to check the shell of the crab, you need to check the meat, you need to check various locations that might be contaminated."

The massive oil spill is nowhere near contained; the federal government can't even identify the amount of oil spilled. 6,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico are still closed to any kind of fishing, which is devastating the economy.

And sniffing seafood for contamination implies a high level of contamination. No effort is being made to address the issue of consumers made ill from consuming seafood with low-levels of contamination. If enough seafood that is nominally contaminated is consumed over a long period of time, that accrues into one jumbo toxic exposure. The health consequences are unknowable.

The new BP escrow fund should include money for eaters who are made ill from contaminated Gulf Coast seafood
Encouraging Americans to eat potentially contaminated seafood, given FDA's historically bad track record with food inspections, as well as the fact that the government has no idea of the health impact of repeated ingestion of seafood that is contaminated with low levels of toxins, is as irresponsible as allowing BP to handle spill clean up for all these weeks when the conglomerate has been putting expense above human and environmental safety. The BP escrow account that President Obama is expected to announce this evening during his Oval Office press conference should include plenty of funding for fisherfolk, as well as for restaurant owners and seafood suppliers and everyone else impacted by the devastation. But it should also include a health fund for those who eat Gulf Coast seafood under the President's advice, and then become ill.

Tacky Jack's is surrounded by oil, by the way
The pool reporter on duty with the President at Tacky Jack's couldn't confirm that President Obama ate the seafood he ordered, and there's no telling what part of the Gulf it actually came from, anyway. But Tacky Jack's itself is on the Cotton Bayou, and perched above inland waters that have received a flood of BP oil. Efforts are now being made to construct a giant gate at the mouth of the waterway to block further oil incursions, according to a local reporter who e-mailed the press pool. Massive steel pilings for the gate system have already gone into the waters, and completion is expected...two weeks after the oil was first discovered. Patrons used to arrive by boat to Tacky Jack's, but that's now no longer possible.

*The fishery area closure and surveillance plan is here [PDF]. Photos of how seafood testing is done are here, at NOAA's Flickr page.