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Courtney Hamilton’s Blog

4 Jumbo Shrimp vs. 56-- What Seafood Consumption Really Looks Like in the Gulf

Courtney Hamilton

Posted December 8, 2010 in Health and the Environment, The Media and the Environment

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When I was a little girl, my diet pretty much consisted of two things: quartered tomatoes with ranch dressing and fwimp cocktail (also known as shrimp cocktail by those who can pronounce their s's). I loved both dishes dearly, and still do to this day.

In all likelihood my love of shrimp came from my dad-- a doctor with a penchant for cooking and dinner parties. As a kid, often my job at was to circulate the hors d'oeuvres at parties, usually Cajun style shrimp with a spicy aioli, straight up boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, or both-- though admittedly I was often dishonorably discharged from my duties due to serving myself more than the guests... but I digress...

As I've mentioned in previous postings, my dad now lives in the panhandle of Florida on the Gulf Coast and-- according to his own measure-- eats "ten times the seafood I ate when I lived in Pittsburgh."

My dad and I don't often talk about his seafood consumption habits, but when he called me at work earlier this week I was writing the press release for NRDC's Gulf Coast seafood consumption survey, and I was telling him about the study, why we did it, and how much seafood FDA thought he and his neighbors were eating.

Let's just say that when I told him that FDA was using national data to estimate seafood consumption in his neck of the woods, and assumes that Gulf residents eat about 4 jumbo shrimp a week, he responded "that's ridiculous. When your step-mother Mandy lived in Missouri the closest she ever came to seafood was frozen fish sticks. Now she eats fish almost every day." Admittedly, he didn't know enough about the survey for that to be a fair comparison, but it makes his point: people in the Gulf love their seafood more than the rest of us.

The results of NRDC's seafood consumption survey revealed significant discrepancies between Administration and locals’ reported consumption rates, in particular, with regard to shrimp consumption: on the low-end FDA’s estimates were 3.6 times too low, and on the high-end, actual consumption exceeded FDA estimates by more than 12-fold (apparently, I am not alone in my fondness for the critters).

Unfortunately, these discrepancies are additionally concerning because (1) shrimp are expected to accumulate higher concentrations of PAHs compared to fish, since invertebrates are less able to efficiently excrete these chemicals than are vertebrate fish; and (2) the FDA testing protocols include the fewest samples for shrimp, and may underestimate contamination further by shelling and removing the head before testing, whereas many Gulf Coast recipes involve cooking shrimp in the shells and eating them whole.

Because I find it easiest to understand the difference between FDA's data and what's actually happening on the ground when I translate "grams per day" to "jumbo shrimp per week"-- I figured I'd translate our data for you here into those same terms, in the hope that you can understand better too:

FDA estimate: folks eat on average 4 jumbo shrimp/week.

Our survey showed, approximately:

Median consumption (entire survey): 17 jumbo shrimp/ week

Median consumption for rural coastal communities in Louisiana: 19 jumbo shrimp/week

Median consumption for Vietnamese-American communities in LA & MS: 22 jumbo shrimp/week

High-end consumers (90th percentile): 56 jumbo shrimp/week

What does this all mean?

It means that the long term health of the people in our survey isn't being adequately protected by FDA's seafood safety standards. And, based in anecdotal evidence, I strongly suspect those standards aren't adequately protecting the health of my dad or my step-mom either.

UPDATE:If you're interested, activist/news site Change.org wrote a piece on the seafood survey results, and created a petition so you can tell FDA what you think, here.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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