It's National Seafood Month and the FDA Must Protect Consumers from Contaminants in Seafood
Posted October 12, 2011
October is National Seafood Month, so it’s a good time to reflect on seafood safety. I have been raising concerns for years about this issue, since it’s an important and delicate balancing act for doctors and consumers. On the one hand, many types of seafood are a low-fat source of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy protein. As a physician, I like to recommend seafood to pregnant women, children, and others. But on the other hand, some types of seafood can contain unhealthy doses of mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants.
Fortunately there are types of fish that are generally low in mercury, but high in omega-3’s. A handy wallet card and seafood guide to help pick lower mercury seafood is here. But mercury isn’t the only problem I’m thinking about during National Seafood Month.
In the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there were serious concerns about the safety of Gulf seafood. Crude oil contains chemicals called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are also found in soot, cigarette smoke, and diesel exhaust. PAHs can cause cancer, and studies of newborns have shown that prenatal exposure to PAHs is also linked to neurological and developmental delays. Unfortunately certain types of seafood – especially shellfish such as oysters and shrimp – can accumulate PAHs and become toxic to consumers. After the oil spill, my colleagues and I evaluated the FDA’s safety assessment that justified reopening the Gulf to fishing, and we raised numerous concerns, detailed in earlier blogs here, and here. We reached out to the FDA repeatedly to encourage the Agency to fix the flaws in the seafood safety assessment, but our efforts were ignored.
This week, the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives is publishing our critique of the FDA Gulf seafood safety assessment. In this peer-reviewed scientific study, we applied currently accepted risk assessment calculations to the situation in the Gulf, and came to very different conclusions than the FDA. In fact, we found that the cancer risk associated with Gulf seafood consumption was up to 10,000 times higher than the risk calculated by the FDA. That’s because the FDA assumed that all consumers were large adults (weighing 176 pounds) and ignored smaller women and children who are more vulnerable; the FDA also assumed that people eat relatively little seafood, and that they never eat oysters, shrimp, and fish all in the same week; FDA also assumed that all of the contamination in the Gulf will have disappeared within 5 years, and that the most common of the PAH chemicals was not carcinogenic (even though the National Toxicology Program says it is). Our findings suggest that the decision to open some areas of the Gulf to fishing may have been premature, and that pregnant women should still exercise caution about Gulf shellfish. My colleague and co-author Miriam Rotkin-Ellman’s blog provides additional information about our study.
The most disturbing thing about this newly-published study on the flawed FDA seafood safety assessment isn’t just the implications for Gulf seafood. The real problem is that the FDA is not putting consumer safety first. In fact, the FDA’s response to our journal article expressed the concern that our calculations “would unnecessarily exclude many food groups from consumers.” In contrast, the European Food Safety Authority has taken action to restrict the allowable levels of PAHs in numerous foods including seafood, in an effort to protect public health. That’s what the FDA needs to do too. Instead, the FDA is failing to protect consumers from PAHs, and also from many other threats, including:
- Mercury in seafood, which is well-recognized to damage the brain. FDA's website calls out only a few types of fish with the highest mercury levels, and gives especially confusing guidance for children. Worse still, the agency does utterly inadequate monitoring for mercury in seafood, basing their recommendations on a few dozen samples of most types of seafood nationwide over the past two decades.
- Hormone-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A, which can contaminate canned foods (see my colleague Sarah Janssen’s recent blog post for new developments on this).
- Antibiotic-resistant ‘super-bugs’ in food, which can lead to major health problems and make lifesaving drugs less effective.
That’s why we’re launching a broader campaign to “Fix FDA”. I hope the FDA will respond quickly to the petition we’re filing today to set a scientifically-justifiable tolerance for PAHs in seafood, and take action to protect consumers. It’s the right thing to do for National Seafood Month.
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