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October 13, 2011

FDA Fails to Examine Gulf Seafood Safety

Shrimp1The life of a consumer is a series of transactions. We go to stores and purchase items made by producers. The underlying assumption or prerequisite of the transaction is that the consumer has complete information. When we are at clothing stores we judge the product visually, and if the shirt has a tear or is too wide, we don't buy it. When consumers don't have the ability to acquire complete information, the government steps up -- ushering in the services of agencies such as the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assure the products safety and validity. This gives credence and fluidity to the markets and lets consumers sleep at night knowing the apple they bit into and the pill they swallowed are safe. Supposedly. 

 A new report conducted by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), discussed in OnEarth, reveals that the FDA has been cutting corners in examining the safety of Gulf seafood, despite loudly proclaiming its safety in the spring. The report finds that the FDA used poor standards and science, letting up to 10,000 times the safe level of chemical contamination slip by -- endangering pregnant women and young children and those who consume a lot of seafood. NRDC's report, which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, finds fault with the FDA in three areas.

To start, the FDA was using less rigorous benchmarks for contamination than were used for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster, which was of a smaller scale than the 2010 BP oil disaster. Secondly, NRDC finds that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in crude oil, and a known carcinogen, were not properly considered by the FDA. PAHs are also associated with liver disease, birth defects, and neurological damage. Lastly, the FDA based its study on unrealistic assumptions. They determined their levels of chemical safety on what the health effects would be to somebody with a weight of 176 pounds who ate the national average of seafood consumed –- an average of 4 shrimp per week. This ignores the fact that large swaths of people weigh less than 176 pounds and with local seafood being a daily diet choice –- have you heard of Cajun or Creole dishes not including shrimp, fish or oysters? Many folks in the Gulf eat five times the national average of consumed seafood.

What's scary is that these are major flaws and the FDA knows it. The FDA is an agency with regulations so thorough that new pharmaceuticals can take a decade to hit the market. They employ the best and the brightest health scientists and PhD statisticians. But they don't see the flaws in using national average seafood consumption? Unlikely. As soon as the FDA becomes an instrument for false economic reassurance, it loses its identity. It becomes an expensive taxpayer-funded program inefficient at doing its job -- providing complete information. Read more here.

-- Charley Gaber, Sierra Club Louisiana Intern

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