Federal agencies are joining forces to understand the potential impacts to food safety resulting from the disastrous BP oil spill. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are all working together to understand the potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from affected waters.
Federal and state officials are monitoring waters where seafood is harvested and will act to close areas contaminated by the oil spill to fishing and shellfish harvesting. NOAA has authority to close Federal waters to commercial fishing and States have authority to close waters within their jurisdiction. NOAA has already taken action by closing a large area of the Gulf of Mexico to commercial fishing, and, some state molluscan shellfish beds have been closed in anticipation of the oil nearing the shoreline. Federal and State agencies will be closely monitoring waterways and closing harvesting operations that are exposed to the oil spill in an effort to prevent unsafe seafood from reaching food distribution and consumer markets.
FDA has also initiated a sampling plan to provide verification that harvested seafood is safe to eat. A surveillance sampling program of seafood products from the Gulf Coast area is targeting mainly products from seafood processing plants. FDA is currently focusing on oysters, crabs and shrimp, which could retain contaminants longer than finfish. Meanwhile, fish and shellfish harvested from areas unaffected by the closures are considered safe to eat.
NOAA is closely monitoring the surface and subsurface movement of petroleum and is expanding the closed area as needed. States are also closing harvest waters under their jurisdiction. At this point, there is no evidence to show that any contaminated product has made its way to the market. Closing harvest waters which could be exposed to the oil is the most effective way to protect the public from potentially contaminated seafood, because it keeps the product from entering the food supply.
Federal and State waters closed due to contamination from the oil spill will only be re-opened for harvesting after it has been determined that seafood harvested from those areas is safe for consumption. The FDA oversees a mandatory safety program for all fish and fishery products under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. If adulterated seafood is found on the market, both the FDA and the States have the authority to seize the product and remove it from the food supply.
At this point, there are 2 key messages that are being delivered:
- Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time.
- Fish and shellfish harvested from areas unaffected by the closures are considered safe to eat.
As always, an additional best practice for the retail and manufacturing industries is to only purchase foods from an approved and safe source.
Certainly as this event continues, there will be updates relative to seafood safety. You can call a representative from FDA at 1-888-INFO-FDA with questions or concerns about seafood or to report any seafood you have purchased that you suspect of being contaminated with oil.
Other updated information can be found from the following sources described below:
Richard H. Linton
Professor of Food Safety at Purdue University