FDA not considering Gulf seafood consumption in safety estimates, says coalition


A coalition of environmental groups accuses the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of failing to accurately estimate how much seafood coastal residents eat when setting safe levels for oil-related contaminants in fish, shrimp and crabs.

Those groups, headed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the standards used to reopen the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing leave people who eat a lot of seafood potentially vulnerable to cancer-causing substances.

FDA officials said none of the Gulf states were able to provide seafood consumption estimates for coastal residents, forcing the agency to rely on national statistics.

Dr. Gina Solomon — a University of California toxicologist, member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board and senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council — acknowledged that none of the seafood tested by the FDA appears to have dangerous levels of oil contaminants.

That was fortunate, she said, given the agency’s approach to setting the safe levels, which have been blamed for undermining public confidence in seafood.

The Press-Register previously reported that the FDA standards set after the BP spill allow higher levels of oil contaminants to be present in seafood than has been allowed after other major spills.

The newspaper also reported that based on an FDA assumption that people eat four times more fish than other types of seafood, the agency standards allow shrimp, crabs and oysters destined for public consumption to be four times more contaminated than fish.

Solomon said the NRDC conducted a non-random survey of 547 coastal residents and found that people in the survey ate from three to 12 times more shrimp each week than the FDA estimated.

“We found that FDA assumptions for consumption frequency and meal size significantly underestimate exposure levels for the majority of the Gulf respondents to our survey. These people would not be protected by the FDA guidelines on Gulf seafood contamination,” reads a letter Solomon and the NRDC sent to the FDA. Mobile Baykeeper also signed that letter.

“Levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in seafood that would fall within the FDA guidelines as acceptable would, in fact, expose these people to levels of cancer-causing chemicals more than 10-fold higher.”

In a statement e-mailed to the Press-Register, the FDA addressed the NRDC survey and wrote that the “FDA is not aware of any published data upon which we can rely for seafood consumption figures other than what we used.”

“The Natural Resources Defense Council has now provided FDA with information from a Gulf Coast seafood consumption survey it recently completed. FDA will review the NRDC’s survey to determine if it is suitable as a source of consumption data and, if so, whether it would impact any of the safety conclusions drawn by the states and the federal government,” the statement said.

Solomon said the FDA assumed that people who ate the most shrimp ate what amounted to about four jumbo shrimp per week.

“Our survey certainly shows there is a significant population of people on the Gulf Coast who eat a heck of a lot more seafood than the FDA believes,” Solomon said.

“Based on the actual contaminant levels in seafood, I don’t see a reason for people to change their diet, but I do see a reason for FDA to change their approach to how they conduct risk assessments. I don’t want them to be leaving out this group of Gulf Coast residents who eat a lot of seafood. They are the most vulnerable.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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