FDA Official Calls Independent Research on Seafood Contamination “Junk Science” – But Government Agencies Use Same Methodology and Lab


It seems the “Mission Accomplished” crowd is dusting off a Bush-era tactic for their latest all-clear declaration, trying to brand impeccably conducted, lab-certified research on seafood contamination as “junk science.” We’ve see this same attack-the-science tactic on issues ranging from global warming to stem cell research.

It’s an insulting and divisive strategy, and clearly shows that BP, relevant federal agencies and their apologists just DON’T get it.

I take particular issue with recent comments from Don Kraemer, FDA’s Deputy Director in the Office of Food Safety, that he and his agency are concerned about media reports that give credibility to what the FDA calls “junk science” and questionable lab tests. At a recent meeting with Louisiana seafood-industry leaders, Kraemer reportedly said: “We’re working now to address independent reports that aren’t scientifically sound.” He, of course, did not mention any specific reports, but simply cast doubt on ALL independent research that exposes seafood contamination.

Marco Kaltofen, a civil engineer and a leading member of my research team, had this to say in response to Mr. Kraemer: “Our independent tests use the same laboratory and the same methodology as is used by response agencies and their contractors. Our samples are submitted blind to the labs, and they are tested by the same professionals in the exact same way. In the end, even FDA admits that their hit rate for oil in fish is similar to our own. The difference is in how media organizations characterize the data.”

So in other words, Mr. Kraemer, if our research is “junk science” so is yours, because our methodology is the same, and we use the very same laboratory for testing.

Kaltofen: “I challenge any organization to go into the field with us to collect specimens side by side and send them blind to a certified lab. Then we can discuss the results. They will find, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that important marine species are still showing contamination from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Mr. Kraemer’s comments are a poke in the eye to every independent researcher who is working tirelessly out in the field to reveal the truth about Gulf seafood. Kraemer’s statements are clearly designed to discredit that important research. His comments are also meant to bring a chilling effect on media reports covering the work of independent scientists and their lab-certified results.

On this blog, I’ve posted a series of lab-certified test results showing high levels of contamination (i.e., toxins associated with oil and/or dispersants) in seafood samples of every stripe, from royal red shrimp to blue crabs to red snapper. The research of one of my clients, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), is featured in a recent Huffington Post article by Susan Buchanan entitled “Private Seafood Tests Uncover Toxins Missed By Feds.”

The article cites Paul Orr of the Lower Mississippi River-keeper in Baton Rouge (the parent organization is LEAN):

Oysters, crabs and fin fish were gathered from twenty locations between the western edge of Terrebonne Parish and the Louisiana-Mississippi border. They were tested for total petroleum hydrocarbons or TPHs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. Testing was done by two, commercial-lab companies, using EPA-recognized protocols, Orr said.

“All of the seafood organisms that we collected came back with TPH levels that were of concern to us, and a number of them were very, very high,” Orr said. “As far as we can determine after talking with researchers and a toxicologist, there should be no detectable levels of TPH in seafood. We also found some high levels of total PAH’s.”

Orr continued, saying “some of the organisms we tested came from waters that were open for fishing, and the samples all looked beautiful. They smelled good, and there was nothing that made me think that they might be contaminated with oil.”

Orr doubted anything would be found in the first oyster samples that the group sent for testing. “But they came back from the lab containing 9,780 mg/kg of total petroleum hydrocarbons, which was a bit alarming. Since then, we’ve sampled from the western edge of Terrebonne Parish to the Louisiana-Mississippi line, and the results we got back suggest to me that the government’s ‘all clear’ was sounded far too soon.”

The HuffPo piece also covers the work of Peter Brabeck, an environmental monitor at the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade:

“…we received test results a week ago from samples of oysters collected in Terrebonne Bay and Grand Bayou Felicity in Lafourche Parish.” Those samples were tested by a Wisconsin lab run by Pace Analytical Services, which also has a sediment-and-water lab in St. Rose, La. The Bucket Brigade sent three, separate samples to Wisconsin, where they were chemically tested in batches of 7 to 9 oysters each.

To my horror, the results showed extremely elevated levels of cadmium – which is associated with oil from the BP spill,” Brabeck said. The cadmium detected was 150 to 200 times what’s considered safe for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency’s carcinogenicity ‘RfD’ or oral reference doses for food, he said.

I wonder if Mr. Kraemer would include the work of Mr. Orr and Mr. Brabeck with the independent reports that he says “aren’t scientifically sound.” And I wonder if he’d say it to their faces.

Time and again, it’s the independent research that’s been right and the “official” findings have not only been wrong, but they have always been wrong in ways that (coincidentally) benefit Big Oil. In the Gulf, we get that the regulators and the regulated were in bed together before the spill – and they continue to work together closely now.

So, as the official agencies became BP handmaidens, it was left to independent researchers to expose the truth – and they have delivered, big time.

It started early on, with the official lowball spill estimates – it was independent scientists who quickly saw that BP and NOAA were lying. Those independent findings were first discounted, until they were proven correct and the feds reluctantly backed down. But the pattern was set: The agencies scoffed at the idea of giant underwater oil plumes, until they had to admit they do indeed exist. They stood before the TV cameras and declared that the “vast majority” of oil was gone, a brazen lie that was largely contradicted in their own report – and ultimately led to the resignation of front woman (and lead Administration energy advisor) Carol Browner.

As a native son of Louisiana and a New Orleans resident, I love Gulf seafood and fully realize what it means to our economy and our culture. I miss it. But independent testing by highly qualified scientists gives us reason for caution, and let’s acknowledge that NOAA and other relevant government agencies have totally squandered any credibility they ever had. I find it very difficult these days to give them the benefit of the doubt.

How in the world can anyone challenge our findings with a straight face when the government’s all-clear is based on completely unrealistic consumption levels? The feds need a low consumption level to make their “findings” work, so they set the shrimp consumption at four per week. Time and again, they have been pro-BP until dragged kicking and screaming into reality.

So the all-clear crowd wants to cast the seafood safety debate as a “perception problem,” an idea especially attractive to those who will benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars being considered for marketing efforts. The idea seems to be that Gulf seafood is safe because, well, it just hast to be.

Biology will not care about short-term political gains. And if you think things are bad now, just wait until people get sick from our seafood – eventually, if a link is established, we won’t face a few years of deflated demand, but a few generations.

In the meantime, remember the old saying we’ve noted before: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. In the Gulf, NOAA and the other agencies didn’t really fool us all that much – we have too much FEMA experience to readily trust federal agencies – but they came close for a while in the early days.

Junk science? Take a look at who has been right and who has been wrong on everything from spill-flow estimates to the existence of underwater oil plumes to the “vast majority of the oil is gone” to the dangers of using the dispersant Corexit…need I go on? Look at the political agendas. And if you want to trust those guys, feel free to bury your head in the sand. But don’t be surprised when they are proved wrong – again.

Here’s the seafood story in which Mr. Kraemer is quoted: http://www.louisianaseafoodnews.com/2011/02/10/%E2%80%98junk-science%E2%80%99-behind-independent-seafood-safety-tests/

Catchup on independent seafood testing at HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-buchanan/private-seafood-tests-unc_b_820002.html

Here’s an MSNBC piece on dispersant use and its impact on marine life: http://openchannel.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/12/26/5717367-is-dispersant-still-being-sprayed-in-the-gulf

View an NBC Nightly News piece with Lisa Myers on how dispersants make oil more toxic: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/38492201#38492201

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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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