Gulf seafood gets 'sniff' tests for oil, chemicals

Steve Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program, demonstrates sensory analysis of a sample of shrimp at NOAA's National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula

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Kai Ryssdal: There's still no progress to report on that new cap that BP put on the wellhead the other day. But even when the leak is finally sealed off, there will still be millions of gallons of oil floating around in the Gulf. A whole boatload of dispersant, too --a couple of boat loads probably -- the stuff that's supposed to break up the oil and make it easier to handle. Government seafood inspectors have been testing the haul of what fishing is allowed for oil contamination. But nobody's been checking for dispersant levels.

Marketplace's Adriene Hill has our story.


Adriene Hill: Government scientists test seafood the way a lot of us figure out whether or not something's OK to eat. They sniff it.

Steve Wilson: It's truly a sniff, versus the long gasp of air.

Steve Wilson heads NOAA's seafood testing program. Wilson says the feds also run fish through chemical tests, making sure they've not been exposed to oil. But they're not testing for dispersants. BP has poured nearly 1.8 million gallons of the stuff into the ocean.

Wilson: The FDA and EPA have generally determined that the dispersants are not of concern in the seafood during consumption.

The FDA says dispersant doesn't concentrate in the edible parts of fish or penetrate fish gills or bodies. Wilson says the department is developing dispersant tests, just in case.

Susan Shaw: This is something we have needed to do, but we've been so gripped with the oil itself. Now we're talking a second look.

Susan Shaw is a scientist at the Marine Environmental Research Institute. She says dispersed oil is more toxic than oil or dispersant alone. The ingredients in the dispersant include heavy metals and arsenic to name a few.

The confusion is tough on Ewell Smith. He heads up the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. He's confident the government is doing a good job, but...

Ewell Smith: There some questions around the dispersants, which everyone has concerns about and we want to see as much testing as we possibly can to put those concerns at ease.

There's a lot at stake for the government to get its testing right. Smith says the Louisiana seafood business is worth $2.4 billion, nothing to sniff at.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: If you're watching what you eat, well, not to worry. The FDA says dispersants probably won't wind up in edible bits of fish. But, if you just have to know, we've got a list of dispersant ingredients in our blog.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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