Gulf seafood safety inspections ramp up as oil spill spreads
NOAA and the FDA are teaming up to devise better guidelines for when federal waters should be closed because of the oil spill, and how Gulf seafood should be inspected.
Seafood inspection off the Gulf of Mexico is intensifying this week as the federal government allocates more resources to preventing harvests contaminated by the BP oil spill from reaching US dinner plates and restaurants.Skip to next paragraph
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are together orchestrating a more thorough system of checks and balances that includes water and seafood sampling, dockside inspection, and a renewed rigor in reviewing when federal waters can be reopened.
The efforts reflect the aggressive, multiagency approach President Obama is expected to emphasize in his Oval Office speech Tuesday evening. Monica Allen, a spokeswoman with NOAA, said “the level of collaboration is definitely ramped up” between the two agencies in the Gulf effort – a situation she described as “extraordinary.”
'First line of defense'
The “strongest and the first line of defense” against preventing tainted seafood from making it to shore is the closure of federal waters, says Ms. Allen. To date, 32 percent of federal waters in the Gulf are closed to fishing.
To determine what areas should be opened and closed, federal officials use aerial monitoring and water sampling to track the oil’s movement. Those efforts will now be in tandem with a dockside inspection program of random screenings of fish caught outside the prohibited areas.
Before the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout, NOAA only conducted seafood screenings at Gulf ports for a fee and at the request of wholesale buyers to ensure the safety of their product.
The renewed dockside screenings will include workers trained as “sniffers” who will be able to evaluate if the catch is contaminated by its odor. “It’s the most sensitive forms of testing … if it fails that taint test, it’s out,” Allen says.
Starting last week and continuing though this week, more than 50 workers from agencies and organizations as varied as the Louisiana State University Department of Food Science to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, are undergoing training at the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss.
There, they will be instructed how to use the smell test to detect hydrocarbons in seafood – a technique that can be used not only at dockside, but also for inspections in restaurants and processing facilities.