In our countdown of the year’s top food safety stories, number 3 was the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion on the area’s seafood industry:

The safety of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico after this year’s 4.9 million barrel BP oil spill remains a matter of conjecture.


Those who ordinarily eat a lot of Gulf seafood, including many who catch and process it, are the ones spreading doubts.  Tourists and casual visitors, like President Obama, are more confident, digging into the oysters, shrimp and finfish from “America’s sea.”

It’s too early to say if and when the Gulf will again produce seafood in the quantity and quality it did prior to explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which killed 11 workers and caused the massive oil spill.

The federal response was tepid at best, led by Coast Guard officers who–especially early on–appeared to be taking their marching orders from BP’s U.S. headquarters in Houston.

That left behind distrust that continues to this day.  Gulf state universities, many with deep expertise in marine sciences, keep coming up with research reports that point to damage from the spill far more serious than anything that has emerged from Washington, D.C.

The federal tests used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have consistently indicated that Gulf seafood is safe.  But local toxicologist and public health experts have been picking apart those tests ever since BP got the well capped last July.

Critics say FDA is low-balling consumption rates, does not account for the potential risks to children, and does not look at enough toxic substances.

FDA’s methodology for acceptable risk is based upon a 1-in-100,000 chance of a 176-pound adult getting cancer during a 78-year life span from eating a certain amount of seafood every day for five consecutive years.

In other words, FDA is not saying Gulf seafood is free from contamination; only that it isn’t enough to kill you just yet.

FDA’s Gulf critics want testing adjusted to take into account local seafood consumption and to assess the risks to children.

The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a survey of Gulf residents and found many eat as much as 60 seafood meals a month, and in larger portion sizes than used by FDA.

At the height of the oil spill, most state waters controlled by Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were closed to both commercial and recreational fishing.  In addition, the federal government closed an area of the Gulf approaching 90,000 square miles–an area the size of the state of Minnesota. 

Except for 4,000 square miles around the Deepwater Horizon site, and about 8,100 square miles closed nearby only to Royal Red Shrimp fishing, federal waters have been re-opened to both commercial and recreational fishing.  Small areas of state waters, like 1-2 percent in Louisiana, remain closed.

Total damage to the Gulf seafood industry and the amount of time it will take to recover are unknown.  One thing for certain, however, BP got its risk assessment wrong, very wrong. 

Its Initial Exploration Plan said an accidental spill was unlikely, but if it did occur “no adverse activities are anticipated ” to fisheries or fish habitat.