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Some Consumers Still Have Seafood Safety Concerns

Sustainability Food safety & handling +3 more

Despite it being well over a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, worries about general seafood safety continue to be at a high, reports the Louisiana Sea Grant Programme.

Surveys sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and the Food Industry Centre at the University of Minnesota show astonishing consumer concerns even though extreme precautions are being taken to ensure Gulf seafood is safe.

Beginning in May 2010, public concern over Gulf seafood was gauged through Continuous Food Safety Tracking (CFST), a national consumer perception tracking survey that is coordinated jointly by Louisiana State University and the University of Minnesota. At the height of the spill last July, nearly 75 per cent of consumers nationwide were concerned about oil-contaminated seafood. A subsequent poll in October 2010 showed about 30 per cent of consumers remained extremely anxious about the seafood coming from the Gulf of Mexico.

It appears consumers who are not eating or are avoiding seafood simply are unaware of the screening process, said Lucina Lampila, seafood technology specialist with Louisiana Sea Grant and the LSU AgCenter. Currently, Gulf of Mexico seafood is among the most scrutinized foods in the world. When it comes to seafood safety jurisdiction, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries oversees oysters and fish species harvested within state waters, which extend three miles from shore. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) oversees fish species caught in federal waters beyond that three-mile boundary.

When the oil spill occurred, NMFS closed any areas with oil sheen on the surface and put a cautionary buffer around that, said Ms Lampila. This meant: Dont go in this area, and you cant harvest any seafood inside of this locale.

As for seafood that was harvested from open waters, the first line of defense was having NMFS-certified field inspectors smell the product for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are in oil and put off a strong, pungent odor that is easily detected with a simple sniff.

They are very important because they are aromatic compounds that can be absorbed by humans if consumed, and very high molecular weight ones can cause cancer, said Ms Lampila.

A highly trained inspector can identify contamination of one part per million, or about one drop of oil in a gallon of water. Sniffing is a fast, effective, low-cost screening tool. If anything is detected, NMFS destroys the seafood and keeps the waters from which it was harvested closed.

If nothing is detected in the field, samples are sent to the NMFS lab in Pascagoula, Miss., where a panel of seven inspectors sniff the seafood. If five out of seven dont identify any PAHs, they divide the sample, cook part of it and smell the cooked product to see if there is any odor. If theres no oil scent, then next is a taste test.

If five out of seven dont taste anything, the lab ships the sample to the NMFS lab in Seattle, Wash., where the seafood is subjected to chemical testing. A gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy (GCMS) unit is used to look for target levels of PAHs. If fish species from a specific areapass every one of these tests, then the waters are opened and remain open for harvest and the product is acceptable for market.

Many foods (kale, barbecued and smoked meats) contain a measurable level of PAHs, but that doesnt mean the food is toxic. Of all the seafood samples that have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal agencies, none have PAH levels in concentrations that are of concern.

The FDA is very demanding and very cautious. They are not going to say something is safe if they have doubts, said Lampila. If you as a consumer smelled the PAHs at levels greater than 20 parts per million, your eyes, nose and throat would burn, added Ms Lampila. Before the oil spill, the FDA would randomly check seafood processors every one to two years. Those visits were to look for any potential hazards and to ensure impending problems were addressed. Sampling took place sporadically.

Currently, labs are continuously analyzing seafood, and inspectors are spot checking at the docks for contaminants. As of April 28, all federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were opened to seafood harvesting. Oysters, which are harvested from state waters, are tested by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Although largely unaffected by the oil spill, the shellfish were impacted by freshwater diversions used to keep oil off the coast. Consequently, many oysters didnt have the salinity needed to survive.

August 2011