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 that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico reaching America’s tables is safe to eat.

The federal government, in conjunction with Gulf states’ regulatory agencies, is playing an active role in ensuring the safety of seafood harvested from federal and state waters. The federal government, led by FDA and NOAA, is taking a multi-pronged approach to ensure that seafood from Gulf waters is not contaminated by oil. The strategy includes precautionary closures, increased seafood testing inspections, and a reopening protocol.

“Closing harvest waters that could be exposed to oil protects the public from potentially contaminated seafood because it keeps the product from entering the food supply,” says Dr. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Combining the expertise of NOAA and FDA is the best way to use our scientific abilities to help the American people in this emergency.”

The first line of defense is NOAA’s fishery area closures, which began May 2 and are adjusted as the spill trajectory changes. The FDA concurred with this approach. The 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.

“FDA and NOAA are working together to ensure that seafood from the Gulf is not contaminated with oil,” says Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of food and drugs. “It is important to coordinate seafood surveillance efforts on the water, at the docks, and at seafood processors to ensure seafood in the market is safe to eat.”

To help prevent tainted seafood from reaching the market, NOAA created a seafood sampling and inspection plan. Just after the beginning of the spill, it collected and tested seafood of commercial and recreational fish and shellfish species from areas where oil from the spill had not yet reached. NOAA is using ongoing surveillance to evaluate new seafood samples to determine whether contamination is present outside the closed area. If fish samples have elevated levels of oil compounds, NOAA will consider whether to expand closed areas.

The federal effort to ensure seafood is not contaminated with oil will also include NOAA’s dockside sampling of fish products in the Gulf. NOAA will verify that catch was caught outside the closed area using information from vessel monitoring systems that track the location of a vessel or information from on-board observers. If tainted fish are found in dockside sampling, NOAA will notify FDA and state health officials for further action.

The 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.

The FDA will first target oysters, crab, and shrimp, which due to their biology retain contaminants longer than finfish, for additional sampling. Finfish rapidly metabolize the oil so the risk of exposure is far less than the other seafood species previously mentioned. The sample collection will target primarily seafood processors who buy seafood directly from the harvester. Monitoring this first step in the distribution chain will help to keep any potentially contaminated seafood from consumers.

FDA also created a focused inspection assignment designed to help seafood processors review their individual source controls to ensure proper documentation and exclusion of any seafood obtained from unknown sources from entering commerce.

The two agencies are also establishing a re-opening protocol. NOAA will reopen 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 and wholesomeness.

“We recognize that the effects of the oil spill continue to grow as oil continues to flow,” Dr. Lubchenco says. “As remediation efforts continue, it may be possible to alleviate some of the economic harm caused by the oil spill by reopening previously closed areas. NOAA will reopen areas only if assured that fish products taken from these areas meet FDA standards for public health.”

Before the BP oil spill, NOAA operated seafood inspection services in the Gulf—consisting of a handful of personnel—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 trained to detect certain thresholds of chemicals, which are not normal background odors in seafood, 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 and sixteen fish and shrimp samples were sent to NOAA’s Seattle testing laboratory for chemical analysis.

“FDA has set up a hotline for reporting seafood safety issues,” says Commissioner Hamburg. “We encourage fisherman and consumers to report potential contamination to 1-888-INFO-FDA.”

Meanwhile, Michael Landa, acting director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for the FDA, posted a letter to the FDA’s website that was directed toward the fishing industry. It read:

“In light of the accident, on April 20, 2010, in which an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire and sank, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to remind fish and fishery product processors of FDA’s regulations and policy concerning the food safety hazard of environmental chemical contaminants.

“The accident resulted in a large, ongoing release of crude oil into the environment. Environmental chemical contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from crude oil, in fish and shellfish pose a potential human health hazard. These contaminants may accumulate in fish and shellfish at levels that can cause illness.

“As is the case with most oil spills off the coast of the United States, state and federal authorities closed waters to fish and shellfish harvesting to prevent the sale or consumption of potentially contaminated fish and fishery products.

“FDA’s Fish and Fishery Products Regulation (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 123 (21 CFR 123)) requires processors to have and implement a written Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan when a hazard analysis reveals that one or more food safety hazards are reasonably likely to occur (21 CFR 123.6(b)). Furthermore, these processors are required to reassess the adequacy of their HACCP plan or, when a processor does not have a HACCP plan because a hazard analysis did not reveal food safety hazards that were reasonably likely to occur, to reassess the adequacy of their hazard analysis whenever any changes occur that could affect the hazard analysis or alter the HACCP plan in any way (21 CFR 123.8(a)(1); 21 CFR 123.8(c)).

“The regulation specifically requires processors of molluscan shellfish to include in their HACCP plans how they are controlling the origin of the molluscan shellfish they process to ensure that they only process shellfish harvested from growing waters approved for harvest by a shellfish control authority or, in the case of shellfish harvested from U.S. Federal waters, from waters that have not been closed to harvesting by an agency of the Federal government (21 CFR 123.28). To meet this requirement, processors who receive shellstock must only accept shellstock from a harvester that is in compliance with the licensure requirements that apply to the harvesting of molluscan shellfish or from a processor that is certified by a shellfish control authority, and that has a tag affixed to each container of shellstock. The tag must include the date and place the shellstock were harvested (by State and site), type and quantity of shellfish harvested, and an identification of the harvester or the harvester’s vessel. In place of the tag, bulk shellstock shipments may be accompanied by a bill of lading or similar shipping document that contains the same information (21 CFR 123.28(c); 21 CFR 1240.60(b)).

“The regulation does not include specific requirements for other fish and fishery product processors on what to include in their HACCP plans to ensure that they only process fish, and other types of shellfish, from waters that have not been closed to harvesting by state and federal authorities. However, FDA provides recommendations concerning different control strategies that processors may use to control environmental chemical contaminant hazards in Chapter 9 of FDA’s ‘Fish and Fisheries Products Hazards and Controls Guidance – Third Edition; June 2001’ (the Guide). One of these control strategies is called ‘Source Control.’

“For products other than molluscan shellfish, FDA recommends among other things that processors of fish and fishery products set a critical limit in their HACCP plan of ‘No fish may be harvested from an area that is closed to commercial fishing by foreign, federal, state, or local authorities’ and establish monitoring procedures for the ‘Location and status (e.g. open, closed) of the harvest area’ for ‘Each lot received’ to ensure that the critical limit is consistently met. (See Control Strategy Example 6- Source Controls in Step 14 (Set the critical limits (CL) & Step 15 (Establish monitoring procedures) of Chapter 9 of the Guide).

“The Guide also provides recommendations on what corrective actions should be taken if the critical limits are not met, what records to keep, and how to verify that the HACCP plan is adequate to address the hazard and is consistently being followed.

“FDA recognizes that the oil spill has had a major impact on much of the fish and fishery products industry in the region. In the coming days, FDA will conduct a conference call with Gulf state stakeholders to review expectations, answer questions, and ensure that processors have plans and tools in place to ensure the safety of the seafood they are receiving and selling to their customers.”

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