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Letter From The Editor: NOAA/FDA

As early as last October, Food Safety News reported on cooperative efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on seafood testing.  That was six months before the BP oil spill.

After the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Food Safety News reported from the scene on how the NOAA-FDA partnership would help ensure seafood safety as the BP oil spill threatened those once productive waters.

It makes great sense.  The same tests NOAA does for science get dual use when FDA puts them to work in the name of food safety.  The NOAA/FDA work received lots of media attention in the six weeks after the BP oil spill.

So it was somewhat humorous when on June 14 NOAA and FDA put out a press release coinciding with President Obama’s return to the Gulf that said “additional steps” were being taken “to enhance inspection measures designed to ensure that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico reaching America’s tables is safe to eat.”

The purpose of the press release was to let us know that the federal government, working with state regulatory agencies, “is playing an active role in ensuring the safety of seafood harvested from federal and state waters.”

If as the Gulf approached Day 60 of the BP spill the federal government found a need to say that–well, you know how bad its been going for them.

Still there were some interesting items in the NOAA/FDA Presidential return press release.  It said the strategy of the two agencies was based upon fish closures, more seafood testing and inspections, and re-opening protocols.

“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. “Combining the expertise of NOAA and FDA is the best way to use our scientific abilities to help the American people in this emergency.”

NOAA’s fish closure area, which has grown to over 80,000 square miles or 33 percent of America’s exclusive economic zone in the Gulf, is called the “first line of defense” for seafood safety by the two agencies.

The closed zone 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 – 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 Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of Food and Drugs. “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.”

As Food Safety News reported, NOAA implemented a sampling and inspection plan after the spill began for both recreational and commercial fish and shellfish.  It includes dockside sampling of fish products from the Gulf.  Contaminated fish are reported to FDA.

FDA has enforcement jurisdiction for all fish and fishery products–except maybe for catfish.   Its now targeting oysters, crab, and shrimp because those species will retain contaminants longer than finfish.

Finfish are believed to more rapidly metabolize the oil so the risk of exposure is far less than the other seafood species previously mentioned.

It was also known that the testing would be focused on seafood processors who buy from the boat captains.  They watch to catch any problems in the first step of the distribution chain.

Whether it makes people in the Gulf feel any better or not, the NOAA/FDA team is thinking about re-opening the now closed areas to future fishing.  That will happen “only if assured that fish products taken from these areas meet FDA standards for public health,” Lubchenco said.

NOAA’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, MS does sensory testing and its Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle does the chemical testing. NOAA had conducted 18 sampling missions through June 14 with 640 fish and shrimp samples processed for testing.

Most of this was not new to Food Safety News or any one else tracking the safety of Gulf seafood in the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.   It did show how a President can shake more information out federal agencies than anyone else can.

© Food Safety News