While a large part of Capitol Hill enjoys the summer, Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was the lone legislator at a House subcommitee panel on the safety of Gulf seafood. The focus of his opening remarks seemed to be as much the amount of oil remaining in Gulf waters as whether the fish and oysters are OK to eat. Markey’s statement included dramatic metaphors to describe the current situation: “Like unseen internal bleeding in a trauma patient, the veiled oil persisting in the Gulf poses continued risks.” He also compared the detrimental effect of “rogue oil” to that of “rogue weapons sold on the black market.”
But while Markey was quizzing his witnesses on whether a little oil or a lot of oil still remains, the lingering memories of petroleum-covered wildlife might make you wary of a shrimp kebab or grouper sandwich. Need to Know did our own research and uncovered five things you need to know about Gulf seafood.
1. Stick to fish
Some species of seafood are better at clearing oil out of their bodies than others. Fish do it the fastest. In fact, the federal government reopened some waters around the Florida panhandle for fishing on August 10.
2. Shellfish take longer to cleanse themselves
Shrimp, crabs and especially oysters have a harder time processing oil droplets that enter their systems. Shrimpers are back out in coastal state waters this week, but further into the Gulf, federal waters are still closed to them.
3. Testing underway
You may have heard about the federal government’s sensory test to evaluate Gulf seafood. Specially trained testers actually sniff samples of fish and shrimp from the Gulf for evidence of oil or dispersants. It may sound odd, but Calvin Walker of the National Seafood Inspection Lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi, told us the sniffers can detect petroleum and dispersants down to about one part per million. Meanwhile, the samples are also undergoing chemical analysis for oil. There is no equivalent lab test currently available for dispersants in seafood tissue. Walker said that while NOAA and the FDA are developing such a test, “the science is pretty firm that [the dispersants] are not a seafood safety issue. Whether they have ecological effects is one thing, but as far as seafood safety there’s no scientific justification for concern.”
And here’s something else to consider — most seafood served in the U.S. doesn’t undergo anywhere near this rigorous level of safety testing. The U.S. imports about 80 percent of its seafood and only about 2 percent of that undergoes even physical inspection. According to the Consumers Union — the publishers of Consumer Reports — the European Union inspects at least 20 percent of imported fresh, frozen, dried and salted fish and at least 50 percent of imported clams and other shellfish.
4. Laws of supply and demand don’t necessarily apply to seafood pricing.
In a normal year, only about 2 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from the Gulf. Steve Hedlund, the editor of SeafoodSource.com, told us that your average supermarket probably didn’t carry much seafood from the southeast to begin with. While all the recent media coverage may make Gulf seafood seem like a common part of the American diet, Gulf shrimp, for example, actually make up only about 5 to 10 percent of the U.S.’s total shrimp consumption. “There may not be a shortage, but there’s a perception of one,” Hedlund said. “Especially with shrimp you saw panicky buying. You’re looking at a 10 to 30 percent bump in pricing.”
5. What’s the bottom line?
Does all this safety testing mean we’re safe? The general consensus seems to be that having a plate of Gulf seafood is safe, but Gina Solomon of the National Resources Defense Council cautioned that some people might want to be extra careful. Pregnant women, children and people who eat fish as a large part of their diet might be more susceptible to long-term health effects.
Solomon also worries about contaminants that may not be problematic right now, but could be a cause for concern in the future. Oil contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead that will take some time to accumulate into dangerous levels. Those substances probably won’t have built up to worrisome levels yet, but Solomon said, “Years from now, they’re likely to be a problem in larger fish like swordfish, king mackerel and tuna.”
NOAA’s Calvin Walker told us that while NOAA and the FDA are not currently testing for heavy metals, they are aware of the concern and that analysis will likely be added to long-term monitoring efforts. “We will continue an intensive surveillance program even after all federal waters open, hopefully in September,” he said.