The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is continuing its effort to reassure the public that Gulf seafood is safe, despite lingering concerns about the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.   

“Gulf seafood is as safe to eat now as it was before the spill,” wrote Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor on the agency blog last week.

Taylor described the process of setting a safety standard for seafood. The FDA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Gulf states settled on using Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) — a group of chemicals found in coal tar, crude oil, as well as chargrilled or “blackened” food, that may cause cancer — as the safety marker.

In all, more than 10,000 seafood specimens were tested by public health officials. In most samples, no PAHs were found, and the samples that tested positive showed levels of PAHs that were 100 to 1,000 times below the levels which would raise a health concern, according to FDA.

“The best way to understand how safe Gulf seafood is, is to visualize how much seafood you could eat and still not reach the levels of concern,” said Taylor.

“Given the low levels of PAHs we found, when we found them at all, someone could eat 63 lbs. of peeled shrimp (that’s 1,575 jumbo shrimp); or 5 lbs. of oyster meat (that’s 130 individual oysters); or 9 lbs. of fish (that’s 18 8-ounce fish filets) every day for five years and still not reach the levels of concern.  We feel confident that the levels that were set are safe and protect the health of anyone who eats seafood, including children and pregnant women.”

“A great deal of effort was invested after the Gulf spill so that we could provide an answer to one question: Is Gulf seafood safe to eat? Yes, Gulf seafood is safe to eat, and it is safe to eat for everyone.”

The most recent concerns about the safety of Gulf seafood stem from a Natural Resources Defense Council study that questioned FDA’s threshold for PAHs.

In an article published in Environmental Health Perspectives in October, NRDC researchers reported that FDA’s methods for setting safety levels for Gulf seafood “significantly underestimate the risk from seafood contaminants.” The researchers concluded that FDA overestimated safe levels for PAHs by as much as 10,000 times for vulnerable populations, like pregnant women and children.

Federal public health officials stand by the interagency assessment that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat.

“Just to be sure that we did not miss anything, federal and state officials continue to collect and test seafood from the Gulf,” according to FDA’s website. “The seafood we have collected continues to be free from harmful oil and dispersant residues.”