Archived Content

The content on this page is provided for reference purposes only. This content has not been altered or updated since it was archived.

Food

Gulf Seafood Safety: A Conversation with Don Kraemer

A Conversation with Don Kraemer, Acting Deputy Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, on gulf seafood safety post the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill.

Questions discussed: 

  1. A year after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, is Gulf seafood safe?
  2. How much seafood would you have to eat to reach the levels of concern in risk assessments?
  3. Since levels of seafood consumption were important factors in risk assessments, how did we calculate those levels?
  4. Right after the oil spill, what did the agencies involved have to do first?
  5. Once all the parties were brought together, what was the next step?
  6. What had to happen before an area of waters was reopened?
  7. What had experts learned from previous oil spills that could be applied to the Gulf?
  8. How did the experience gained from earlier oil spills help after the Deep Water Horizon spill?
  9. What was unique about the Gulf oil spill? 
  10. Had there been a test for dispersants developed during prior oil spills?
  11. How do we ensure that the risk assessments done for oil spills provide enough protection for people?

Question 1: A year after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, is Gulf seafood safe?

We’re very confident that the steps that we have put in place to assure the safety of seafood have worked. We put in an extensive program of sampling, at that time and since then, and the results have consistently been 100 to 1,000 times below our levels of concern. So, we’re quite confident that the seafood that’s in commercial channels is safe. 

back to top

Question 2: How much seafood would you have to eat to reach the levels of concern in risk assessments?

The levels that we’re finding in fish and seafood are very low. We’ve been saying that they are 100 to 1000 times below our levels of concern. So, when you do the calculations, what that tells you… and in fact, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has done those calculations, and they projected that you would need to eat something like 60 pounds of shrimp a day, and you have to do that every day for five years, and that’s at the current levels of contamination, which are very low, in order to get to our levels of concern.

back to top

Question 3: Since levels of seafood consumption were important factors in risk assessments, how did we calculate those levels?

We used what’s called the NHANES data base. This is generally considered the gold standard because it’s a national survey of consumption, not just for seafood, but all sorts of food. We selected the 90th percentile of consumption for seafood to use for the analysis. That’s a national value and some have questioned why we didn’t use the 90th percentile for Gulf coast seafood, a completely reasonable question. The answer is we didn’t have any Gulf coast database we could rely on for Gulf seafood. So, we used the national database. As it turns out, there is a database that’s come to our attention, more recently, of Gulf coast seafood eaters and it supports the level we used for the 90th percentile from the national data. So, it lends further support.

back to top

Question 4: Right after the oil spill, what did the agencies involved have to do first?

The first step was to get all of the parties together. In this case it was a large group of people. We had folks from state health and fisheries agencies as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. All of those agencies have authority over either opening and closing waters in state waters or opening and closing federal waters. So the first step once we got them together was to get precautionary closures in place, and by precautionary, what I mean is, any waters that either were contaminated or had the potential to be contaminated. So we had to project where oil was going to move and get those areas closed.

back to top

Question 5: Once all the parties were brought together, what was the next step?

The next step was to figure out what would it take to get those areas reopened. So we developed with those parties and with some others, for example EPA, a protocol for re-opening and that protocol involved first of all making sure that there was no oil present. So the oil, if it was there, had to have been abated, and then beyond that there needed to be a fairly extensive sampling program that went in place. And those samples then were subjected to both a sensory analysis, which is an odor, which is actually very, very good for picking up odors of oil, but also to a chemical analysis. Initially just for the oil itself, but then as we developed a test method for the dispersant, also it was subjected to a chemical test for the dispersant.

back to top

Question 6: What had to happen before an area of waters was reopened?

No areas opened until every sample passed every test and in fact they tested consistently, as I said, at 100 to 1,000 times lower than the levels of concern we had set for those contaminants.

back to top

Question 7: What had experts learned from previous oil spills that could be applied to the Gulf?

We learned, for example, that PAH, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which is a component of oil, is the most important component to test for. We also learned a little bit about how long it takes for oil to clear from a system. We learned what happens to that PAH when it gets into the animal, and how to test for it. We learned that there are a whole range of PAHs and you need to test for the right one. So, we took that information and applied it, for example, to this event, to the Gulf spill, and realized that we had to find out which were the correct markers, which we did early on, that would track this particular spill.

No areas opened until every sample passed every test and in fact they tested consistently, as I said, at 100 to 1,000 times lower than the levels of concern we had set for those contaminants.

back to top

Question 8: How did the experience gained from earlier oil spills help after the Deep Water Horizon spill?

It enabled us, as well, to gauge what we anticipated was going to be the effect on the environment. It let us know for example that oysters, which is very important in the Gulf, are likely to be a sentinel species. That is they are going to be the ones that are going to be the first to pick up a contaminant. They are going to pick it up at the highest levels and they are going to hold onto it the longest. So, we knew we would need to test them separately from fin fish, and that there was the possibility we could open up some areas for fin fish before we could open them up for oysters. In fact, it turned out that way in the Gulf, as well.

back to top

Question 9: What was unique about the Gulf oil spill?

The most important distinction was the use of dispersants. They had been used in past spills but never to the extent that they were used here. In a large part that was because it was a continuous release. So, the dispersant could be applied at the time of the releases. Of course, there was a great deal of concern, both for the environment and for workers and also for human food safety, about what impacts that dispersants would have. Our scientists very early on looked at the contents of the dispersants and were quite confident they would not accumulate in the flesh of fish.

back to top

Question 10: Had there been a test for dispersants developed during prior oil spills?

Unfortunately, there never had been a test method developed for these dispersants and we had to very quickly develop that, which we did in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once we had that method in place, we applied it to any re-opening that occurred from there forward and then retrospectively to the samples that had been collected before that. Pretty much as we had predicted, there almost never were any detectable findings of the dispersant in the fish flesh. There were a few samples, less than one percent of the samples, where we did find some but they were at extremely low levels.

back to top

Question 11: How do we ensure that the risk assessments done for oil spills provide enough protection for people?

We use very conservative estimates. So, for example, we estimated that people would be exposed for five years to the levels of concern in seafood. In reality, as I said, we’ve never even approached those levels of concern. We’ve been 100 to 1,000 times below those levels of concern and yet we estimated they’d be exposed for five years at those levels. So, that’s a very conservative estimate, extremely conservative.

back to top

Page Last Updated: 09/06/2013
Note: If you need help accessing information in different file formats, see Instructions for Downloading Viewers and Players.