Louisiana residents have long bragged about their prodigious consumption of local seafood, but a survey by an environmental group suggests that government seafood testing programs in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill severely underestimated that rapacious appetite for fish – and may have underestimated residents’ risk as a result.
A survey of 547 coastal residents in the four Gulf states by the Natural Resources Defense Council found they had seafood consumption rates far higher than those being used by federal and state regulators to determine if contamination levels pose a risk to human health.
Those results may indicate a large population of coastal residents has been left at risk by the state and federal health standards, the NRDC said.
“We’re not saying not to eat Gulf seafood, not by a long shot,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the NRDC. “What we are saying is our survey identified large numbers of people who are eating more seafood than the FDA (federal Food and Drug Administration) assumes in its guidelines.
“My assumption is there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people who are not protected by the FDA guidelines.”
A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health, which uses the FDA protocol for its inspection program, said the agency had forwarded the NRDC report to the federal food agency for comment. The federal agency issued a statement saying it “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.”
And Dr. Jimmy Guidry, head of the LDH testing program, issued a statement saying his staff considered the FDA protocols “protective of health.”
Consumption rates are used to set the levels of contamination that can be allowed in food before it is ruled a threat to health. The higher the consumption rate, the more toxins are consumed, so the lower the acceptable level of contamination allowed for a product to be deemed safe.
The Deepwater Horizon blowout left an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil and two million gallons of dispersant in the Gulf. Health agencies are most concerned about levels of polycyclic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, highly carcinogenic compounds of oil that are known to remain in the Gulf.
The state Department of Health said last week that of the nearly 800 samples taken between April 30 And Nov. 22, none had shown PAHs at the level of concern, and only 297 had shown any trace at all.
But since testing began, environmental and food-safety groups have argued that those levels of concern are inadequate based on the coastal lifestyle, as well as other human parameters.
Because there was no scientifically acceptable survey of seafood consumption rates specific to the Gulf, the FDA has been using a figure derived by placing local residents in the top 10 percent of seafood consumers nationally, based on a long-standing survey of national consumption rates.
The Louisiana Department of Health uses those rates in its testing program.
According to that formula, Gulf Coast residents eat approximately 16.4 seafood meals per month, including 9.1 meals of fish, 2.9 of oysters and 4.4 of shrimp and crab. The portion size is set at 5.6 ounces of fish, 4.2 ounces of oysters and 3.1 ounces of shrimp or crab.
“When we looked at those parameters back in April, we realized the portion size for shrimp was about four jumbo shrimp eaten four times a month,” Solomon said. “But when we asked our partners on the Gulf Coast what they thought, they hooted and laughed, because they knew four jumbo shrimp won’t make one po-boy.”
Solomon said the NRDC, recognizing the absence of a valid local survey, asked the FDA to instead use research published by the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization on seafood consumption rates in fishing communities.
“The Gulf Coast is a fishing community and those studies showed seafood consumption rates were much higher in fishing communities than elsewhere, but the FDA never gave us an answer,” she said.
While conceding the NRDC study, which was voluntary, can’t be considered valid as a measure of average seafood consumption region-wide, Solomon said it closely tracked the EPA and WHO studies of fishing communities.
The median seafood consumption rate was about 20 meals a month, compared to the FDA figure of 9.1, while the 90th percentile in the NRDA survey consumed over 60 meals a month. Portion sizes were also higher than the FDA standards.
The NRDC was particularly troubled by its finding that some respondents ate 12 times as many shrimp as the rate being used by the FDA because, it said, shrimp may hold higher concentrations of PAHs since invertebrates are less efficient in excreting those chemicals than vertebrate fish
Critics of the FDA program have also questioned using 176 pounds as the average weight of consumers in establishing the levels of concern for PAHs. Sixty percent of respondents to the NRDC survey said they weighed less than 176 pounds.
“That weight obviously also doesn’t protect children,” said Solomon. “Once again, we’re not telling people not to eat Gulf seafood. What we are asking is for the FDA to do the science right, bring truth to local diets.”