What's the government doing to test seafood from the Gulf to make sure it's safe?

Easy Answer: Sniffing it.  Eating it.  And testing it for chemicals.

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I emailed with NOAA to find out more about how're they're testing seafood to make sure contaminated fish and oysters don't wind up in our stomachs.

The good news so far: the feds haven't discovered any tainted seafood in waters still opened to fishing.

How does NOAA work with the FDA to ensure safety of Gulf seafood?

The Federal Government is taking a three-pronged approach to ensure seafood from Gulf of Mexico waters is not contaminated by oil.  These are precautionary closures and surveillance, a strict reopening protocol and testing of seafood at primary processing plants.

Federal and State waters likely to have been exposed to oil or dispersants have been closed by appropriate authorities. The Federal Government believes that the best way to protect the public from potentially contaminated seafood is to close fishing areas in the Gulf that have been or are likely to be exposed to the oil and dispersants.

FDA and NOAA are ensuring that Federal waters that have been closed are not reopened until seafood coming from them is not contaminated by oil. The States are working to implement similar plans in coordination with the Federal Government to ensure that seafood harvested in State waters is not contaminated by oil.

NOAA is monitoring fish caught just outside of closed Federal areas and testing them for both petroleum compounds and dispersants. The results of the sampling will help ensure that NOAA's closed areas are sufficiently protective to prevent the harvest of tainted fish. NOAA will complete the chemical analysis of samples collected from Federal waters at NOAA labs and science centers.

The Coast Guard and NOAA are monitoring the closed Federal areas to ensure that fishermen are not fishing within those areas and will take enforcement action against fishermen violating the closure boundary. NOAA publicizes the closed areas through a variety of means so that fishermen can know where it is safe and legal to fish.

I saw that there's a "sniff test" of seafood.  What does that entail?

Fish collected by NOAA for testing can be subjected to sensory or chemical testing. The sensory testing is done at our Pascagoula lab and the chemical at our lab in Seattle.

The sensory standard for comparison is based on samples of surface water mixed with a combination of oil and dispersants. Sensory experts check the scent and look of raw seafood, and the taste and scent of cooked seafood. Chemical analysis of oil allows scientists to conclusively determine whether contaminants are present in fish tissue that would be consumed, and if so at what level, and finally if the contaminants are due to the spill or related clean-up activities.

The combination of protective closures and sensory testing and chemical analysis provides the best protection against tainted seafood entering the marketplace.

NOAA and FDA seafood inspection specialists are training State employees in sensory analysis, so that more screeners can be available to examine fish.

What chemicals do the lab tests check for? 

NOAA, the FDA and the states are looking for the 12 most potent polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are the components of petroleum that are of concern to human health, as well as metabolized contaminants.

Of the samples that have passed the "sniff test", what percent fail the subsequent test?

So far, no samples gathered from outside the closed fishing areas have failed the sensory tests or the chemical analyses. The closures are meant to keep any potentially tainted seafood from the marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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