FDA Says Eat Gulf Seafood; Some Doubt Smell Test The U.S. government continues to stand by its assertion that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe. But some Gulf fishermen question the claim, and the "smell test" used to back it up. And in some areas, oil continues to wash up on protective booms and in marshes near fishing grounds.
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FDA Says Eat Gulf Seafood; Some Doubt Smell Test

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FDA Says Eat Gulf Seafood; Some Doubt Smell Test

FDA Says Eat Gulf Seafood; Some Doubt Smell Test

FDA Says Eat Gulf Seafood; Some Doubt Smell Test

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128957145/128957138" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The U.S. government continues to stand by its assertion that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe. But some Gulf fishermen question the claim, and the "smell test" used to back it up. And in some areas, oil continues to wash up on protective booms and in marshes near fishing grounds.


John Stein, head of the Seafood Safety Program in the Gulf, and deputy director, NOAA's Ocean and Human Health Center
Kim Chauvin, co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co.

TONY COX, host:

The FDA now says that seafood harvested from approved areas of the Gulf of Mexico is safe, and that seafood lovers can be confident when buying and eating seafood from the region. There is concern among those who work in the fishing industry in the Gulf, about the thoroughness and transparency of the test methods, especially the so-called sniff test.

We'll hear from a shrimper in a few moments, as well as someone from the seafood safety program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We also want to hear from you. Do you trust that the seafood from the Gulf is safe? Are you buying it or eating it? Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. The email address: talk@npr.org. To join the conversation, just go to our website, npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Stein joins us now on the telephone from Mississippi. He is head of the seafood safety program in the Gulf and is the deputy director of NOAA's Ocean and Human Health Center. John, welcome.

Dr. JOHN STEIN (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Good afternoon.

COX: So everyone wants to know, are fish and shrimp harvested from the Gulf safe to eat now?

Dr. STEIN: Yes, they are. There's three components to our program. NOAA has the ability to close federal waters to fishing if there's a concern over any impact from the oil spill. And that was done right after the spill started and was amended daily to make sure that we were closing those areas that were impacted by the oil. Then when - thus, when the fishermen are out there catching fish, they're catching fish from outside that area and we were doing surveillance testing to ensure that the fish from outside the closed area were in fact - did not have oil in them. So...

COX: Do you find that there is a - I hesitate to use the word credibility, but none other comes to mind. Is there a credibility issue with regard to whether we can believe what the government says about this? And I say that because there have been so many missteps and much misinformation that has been given to the public ever since this began. How can we be confident that what we are hearing is really the truth?

Dr. STEIN: Because I think the way to explain - respond to that question is the quality of the program that we have. It's - it consists of that closed area which has been evaluated on a daily basis to make sure that if oil was present, the area was closed in a precautionary way. It then requires that for any reopening, which was a collaborative effort between FDA, Food and Drug Administration, NOAA, and the Gulf states, that for an area to be reopened, it must be free of oil for at least a week. And then there has to be, from looking at the data we have, from observations and modeling, that there's very low risk of any re-oiling. Then, the seafood is sampled from that area, and must pass two tests.

The sensory analysis, it must pass. If it fails that, it can't reopen. If it passes the sensory test and then must be tested by an analytical chemistry technique for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the compounds of concern, it must pass that. If it does not pass that chemistry test, then the area cannot be reopened.

COX: Now is the sensory test, otherwise known as the sniff test, the one that is controversial?

Dr. STEIN: It has been referred to as the sniff test, and I think it's also, I think, worth mentioning that this test is not something unique to this oil spill situation. It's an evaluation that's used widely within the food industry to evaluate the quality of wine, for example, the quality of other products that we all consume.

COX: All right. We have a caller on the line from Smyrna, Delaware. Anthony(ph), you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.

ANTHONY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? First of all, I certainly don't trust the - I don't trust the seafood coming out of the Gulf. Not only are there the chemicals that we already know should be of a concern, potential carcinogens and potential toxins, but what about all the surfactants? I don't feel like being part of a big lab experiment that the Gulf states seem to be pushing on the country.

COX: Thank you, Anthony. I suppose what he refers to, John, is this idea of whether or not we can trust what we hear. You've already answered that to a certain extent. But are you finding that on your part and on NOAA's part, that perhaps some additional outreach or PR, for lack of a better word, will be necessary to convince folks, like the gentleman that we just heard, that what we're telling you is really true?

Dr. STEIN: I think that both FDA and NOAA have recognized that getting the information out, communicating that in a consistent and continual way is very important, because for people to understand that we have this program in place -yes, it's been a big event and people are concerned, but we need to continually communicate the actions that the U.S. government is taking to make sure that seafood that the public consumes is wholesome and safe. And we're dedicated to that, and you can only - you always can do more. And we're working on that on a continual basis to get that information out.

COX: Here's a - I'm sorry. Did you finish your answer? I was going to...

Dr. STEIN: I just still want to go back to the fact that we have this ability to close the area, and we did that in a very conservative way so that we could work again to build confidence that the seafood that is being harvested is from outside that area. And we also even have the enforcement side of it to make sure that - checking boats as they come in, that they have not been in the oiled area. And if there's any concern, then that catch is not allowed to be sold and can be evaluated as well.

COX: Let's go to a caller. Cathy(ph) joins us from San Antonio. Cathy, how do you feel about it?

CATHY (Caller): Well, when I go to a restaurant, the first thing I order now is seafood because I expect that after this spill, not only our inspectors but our fishermen are going to be even more vigilant than they ever have been. And it's got to be safer now than it ever was.

COX: That's an interesting thought. What about that, John?

Dr. STEIN: I would like to comment to that because we've had lot of support from the fishermen for basically that reason, for this program, wanting it to be precautionary and wanting to get the word out and to do the testing because for that exact reason that they want to convey that they're - want to convince the public that they're sampling where they're supposed to, where the seafood is safe, and we're all being very vigilant at this time in the Gulf.

COX: Let me ask another question of you, then we're going to bring in an additional guest to talk about this. You mentioned earlier, John, that the testing was taking place from areas where there was no oil. Give us a sense of how large a testing area we are talking about. And also, give us a sense about the species that we are talking about as well. And how long a time this testing has been ongoing?

Dr. STEIN: Well, the testing, in a sense, started from, you know, almost day one of the incident. And what we were collecting then were samples from areas where the oil had not reached to give us a baseline, where are we starting from, as we went forward. The total area that was closed at its height was nearly 84,000 square miles of the federal waters of the Gulf.

And one portion off of Florida that never had any real appreciable oiling, if any at all, has been reopened and that was about 26,000 square miles. And then we will be working in smaller areas than that to reopen, as we go forward, based on, as I mentioned, the - how long oil had not been there, the degree of oiling that occurred in that area during the entire spill, and then any likelihood that it could be re-oiled. And we will work our way through that in a precautionary way to ensure that all the sea - that when we do reopen, that we're very confident that the seafood is very, very safe.

COX: John, thank you very much.

Dr. STEIN: You're welcome.

COX: John Stein is deputy director of NOAA's Northwest Science Center and head of NOAA's Seafood Safety Testing program.

Now, many fishermen in the Gulf have expressed doubts about the government's safety tests. Joining us now from her office in Louisiana is Kim Chauvin. I think I'm saying it correctly. She is a shrimper in Louisiana. And we have been checking in with her from time to time since the oil well blowout back in April.

Kim, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. KIM CHAUVIN (Owner, Mariah Jade Shrimp Company): Hi. How are you doing?

COX: So you heard what John Stein had to say. You don't believe him?

Ms. CHAUVIN: The issue is this - and I would think that there would have been a lot learned from the Exxon Valdez spill, and that is communication is crucial. When the media, which was, you know, a lot of TV media took this, and when EPA couldn't answer questions and NOAA wasn't speaking to the media, you created this perception that there was no testing being done. There was a perception that the seafood is all going to be toxic. And in that perception, now you have to go back to the people that you let this get out to and you have to undo people's perceptions. That's going to be extremely hard.

I just got in some testings from EPA, which is their second phase. Now, I never received the first phase of it. But the communications is going to be the real crux of the problem. I would think that NOAA and EPA would put maps of the Gulf and where their testings were done, because I'm sure they have lat and longitude lines where they tested, and put in a layman's terms of what they found. And I think that would give the consumer something to go on.

I think each of our wildlife and fisheries from Florida to Texas would also have to put these maps up, but most of our companies - because we own three boats, but we also own a dock. And on my Mariah Jade Shrimp page, you know, what we want to do is put up these testings to show people that - I mean, my motto has always been, if I'm not going to serve it to my own family, I'm not going to serve it to someone else's family.

COX: Now, hold on. I want to ask you about that, because I think people want to hear from you what your opinion is about whether or not this is safe, and I want to get as concise an answer as I can. But first, let me just say this: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, is the - you're a shrimper. Is the seafood safe for us to eat now?

Ms. CHAUVIN: I am not a scientist, nor am I in there testing samples, nor can I read their technological parts of it to understand what they are trying to get through to people...

COX: Well do you believe that it's safe, even though you're not a scientist?

Ms. CHAUVIN: I would want to see, in all honesty, I would want to see what the testings say. Because I'm not that scientist, it's hard for me to say whether it is or whether it isn't. I know what the perception of the people is, you know, because I've had a lot of calls from all over the United States. And that's a scary thing because NOAA didn't do its job nor did EPA, Ms. Jackson, you know, because what they were saying was we just don't know, we just don't know. And then we found out that there was over 30 years of testing that has been done on dispersants. And...

COX: Let me interrupt you because there are some calls that are coming in, and people really want to know this and they're not sure who they can trust. We have George(ph) on the line from Panama City, Florida. George, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

COX: You're welcome. Your comment.

GEORGE: Oh, well, I can tell you that the beaches and waters from Panama City east of here, are clean, and that includes the Apalachicola Bay, where a great deal of the oysters from this - from the Gulf come from. And I eat seafood every day, almost every day, and - at least three times a week from the Gulf of Mexico. And I do not see anything from our area that indicates that there's any bad seafood.

COX: Well, thank you. That's good to know. Let me - before you respond to that, let me ask you, Kim - let me read this email from another person, then we can talk about that. This comes from Mexico, actually, from Bobby(ph). What happens to the catches that are not allowed for human consumption? Are they being used for animal food, and is there any control over the disposition of the disallowed catches?

Do you know the answer to that?

Ms. CHAUVIN: The catches that are not allowed?

COX: Yes, what happens to them?

Ms. CHAUVIN: To my knowledge, the catches - the fishermen aren't going to fish where they're not allowed to be at. So as far as the catches that are not allowed, that I haven't heard of. I mean, all of our fishermen are not even out there trawling anymore. So therefore, like, you know, our dock is pretty much dead. We don't even have any seafood coming in right now. We do have some people that are shrimping out in Texas right now that would be bringing the shrimp back from, you know, from in Texas to come in to Louisiana. But as of now, I think NOAA is being cautious about where they open, because they're doing the samplings, and so is EPA.

At that time, you know, then we'll have another meeting here, probably with NOAA and EPA and get an understanding of what those tests show and what it means for the consumer and what it means for us as businesspeople.

COX: Now, you're in Houma, correct? That's the name of the community?

Ms. CHAUVIN: I'm in Chauvin.

COX: Oh, you're in Chauvin. Now, does that mean that where you are on the Gulf is part of the area where the - where NOAA has said is not yet okay to eat the food from there, or is not yet okay to fish there?

Ms. CHAUVIN: They haven't - they have not opened it up as of yet. They have not opened it up as of yet.

COX: And what does that mean for your livelihood?

Ms. CHAUVIN: Well, first of all, safety is more important at this point on a consumer level. So, I mean, for - as far as what they're doing, as far as EPA and NOAA, looking into more testings and saying that we can't open until we feel assured, then, you know, I have to sit on the back burner.

Now, am I a little upset with BP because they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing as far as claims? Well, yeah, because this all rides on their back and we're getting a lot of mixed signals from BP now that the well's capped or - their terms of being, you know, temporarily capped. It's a whole different ballgame down here. At the beginning, these people, you know, in BP were trying to be helpful as much as possible. Now, it's like they don't have time for you.

COX: Well, it's unfortunately that we have to end the story on that sour note. I appreciate your coming on, though. Thank you very much, Kim...

Ms. CHAUVIN: Okay.

COX: ...for taking the time and to talk with us. Good luck. She joined us by phone from her office in Louisiana.

Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin will be with us. We want you to be with us as well. I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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