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June 18, 2010 > Safety of Gulf of Mexico seafood

Safety of Gulf of Mexico seafood

Submitted By Monica Allen (NOAA) and Beth Martino (FDA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are taking additional steps to enhance inspection measures designed to ensure seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat.

The federal government, led by FDA and NOAA, in conjunction with Gulf states' regulatory agencies, is playing an active role to ensure seafood harvested from Gulf waters is not contaminated by oil. The strategy includes precautionary closures, increased seafood testing inspections and a re-opening protocol. A summary of the FDA-NOAA plan is at

The first line of defense is NOAA's fishery area closures, which began on May 2 and are adjusted as the spill trajectory changes. The FDA has concurred with this approach. The current federal closure of 32 percent of federal waters 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.

To help prevent tainted seafood from reaching the market, NOAA created a seafood sampling and inspection plan. Just after the spill began, it collected and tested seafood of commercial and recreational fish and shellfish species from areas which oil had not yet reached. NOAA's on-going surveillance evaluates new seafood samples to determine if contamination is present outside the closed area. If fish samples have elevated levels of oil compounds, NOAA will consider extending closed areas.

The federal effort to ensure seafood is uncontaminated will also include NOAA's dockside-sampling of fish products in the Gulf. NOAA will verify catch was caught outside the closed area using information from systems tracking a vessel's location or information from on-board observers. If tainted fish are found in dockside samples, NOAA will notify FDA and state health officials for further action.

FDA operates a mandatory safety program for all fish and fishery products under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Public Health Service Act and related federal regulations. Oysters, crab and shrimp which retain contaminants longer than finned-fish, will be the first target for additional sampling. Finned-fish rapidly metabolize the oil, so risk of exposure is far less. Sampling will primarily target processors who buy seafood directly from the harvester. Monitoring this first step in the distribution chain will help keep any potentially contaminated seafood from consumers.

FDA has also created a focused inspection assignment designed to help seafood processors review their individual source controls to ensure proper documentation and exclude seafood obtained from unknown sources from entering the food chain.

Both agencies are also establishing a re-opening protocol. NOAA will re-open closed areas only if it is assured, based on consultation with FDA, that fish products within the closed area meet FDA standards for public health.

Before the BP oil spill, a handful of personnel conducted NOAA's seafood inspection services in the Gulf on a fee-for-service basis for the seafood industry. Today, samples collected as part of NOAA's efforts are sent to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where federal and state sensory testing analysts evaluate the catch. Samples are also sent to NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for chemical testing.

According to the most recent data available, seafood samples had been collected during 18 sampling missions by NOAA and contracted fishing vessels in areas inside and outside the closed fishery area.

From those 18 sampling missions, 640 fish and shrimp samples were processed for either sensory or chemical testing. Of the 640 samples, 118 fish samples were presented to the team of 10 expert assessors for sensory testing in the Pascagoula Laboratory. Four hundred sixteen fish and shrimp samples were sent to NOAA's Seattle testing laboratory for chemical analysis.

Fisherman and consumers should report potential contamination to the FDA's hotline at 1-888-INFO-FDA.

For more information about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring the safety and quality of more than a trillion dollars-worth of products that are critical for the survival and well-being of all Americans, visit

NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the oceans' depths to the sun's surface, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources. For more information, visit or Facebook at

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