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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sea Food Safety FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions About Seafood from the Gulf Coast and the Oil Spill

Advisory prepared by Steve Otwell, Ph.D.Seafood Specialist, Florida Sea Grant College Program
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida
(Last updated June 25, 2010)

Is seafood from Florida’s Gulf coast safe to eat?

All seafood sold in Florida retail stores, supermarkets and restaurants will remain safe to consume prior to and during any potential exposure to contamination from the pending oil spill. Traditional food safety controls have been supplemented with additional emergency response plans by the pertinent federal, state and county authorities. Control measures include monitoring of the harvest waters and products, cautionary closures of certain waters and fisheries, analytical and sensory monitoring of products, and public advisories. Likewise, seafood will be provided from many areas that are not subject to potential exposure to the oil spill.

How do authorities determine the safety of seafood that may be exposed to an oil spill?

Standard analytical tests involving sophisticated laboratory instrumentation are used to detect a variety of potential chemical contaminants associated with water, sediments and seafood that have been exposed to oil spills. Likewise, special sensory methods have been developed and successfully used by trained experts to detect certain aromas in seafood exposed to oil spills. The associated contaminants emit strong and easily detected aromas such that sensory monitoring can be cost-effective and more immediate than the more prolonged analytical procedures. Together, the analytical tests and sensory methods have provided proven measures for product safety. These methods are available through the responsible federal and state programs and various academic research programs that are being positioned for response about the Gulf region.

Should I eat seafood that I catch for myself and family?

In the event of any contamination, state authorities will try to restrict local harvest and recreational activities to coastal waters that are declared open and approved. Public advisories will be posted and broadcast through many agencies, radio stations and televised news. Progressive updates and contact information will be posted on various websites such as the site maintained by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Recreational fishermen should avoid areas with obvious signs of oil contamination on the surface of the water, or on the neighboring beaches and vegetation. Also it is not prudent to eat fish that look distressed, are behaving in a strange manner, or have been found dead. The contaminants associated with an oil spill can be detected with simple sensory checks for odors. Any fish or seafood with an oily, fuel-like odor, either when raw or cooked, should not be eaten, and should be reported to authorities.

Will local seafood be contaminated by the oil spill?

UPDATE 6/25/2010:  While oil has reached some Florida shores, local seafood remains uncontaminated
There is no contamination at this time (May 20, 2010), but predictions suggest the leaking oil could accumulate and reach the Florida coasts. If exposed to the various types of chemicals associated with the oil spill, certain coastal marine animals can be killed or contaminated. The amount of exposure will vary depending on the type of oil present and type of seafood involved. Previous experience from other oil spills about the world indicates that some of the more mobile species can detect and avoid the contaminants, but other slower, burrowing and bottom-dwelling species are more susceptible to exposure. Exposure can be directly from the water, through the aquatic food chain, and/or from contaminated sediments.

Will all exposed seafood remain contaminated?

Once exposure ceases, many marine animals can gradually eliminate the contaminants encountered in an oil spill. The rate of elimination can vary from days to months depending on the amount and type of oil exposure and the metabolism of the particular animals. The levels of contamination will be progressively monitored by authorities before, during and after exposure to assure seafood safety before allowing commercial and recreational harvest.

What are the typical contaminants found in seafood exposed to oil spills?

A large variety of chemicals can be involved in an oil spill. The most common contaminants associated with seafood are collectively known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. These are more common because of their water-soluble characteristics, allowing more exposure to aquatic animals. Interestingly, PAHs are found throughout our environment including our food supply, both raw and cooked. There have been no recorded illnesses due to PAH exposure at most levels encountered in our environment or other foods, but elevated levels will require controls to prevent excessive exposure. There are no established limits for PAH exposure to assure food safety, but from prior experience with other oil spills, guidelines have been calculated for consideration. These guidelines account for both the amount and duration of exposure, and they vary by type of seafood. The guidelines are based on highly sensitive analytical detection of contaminants at concentration levels as low as parts per billion (ppb; one part contaminant per one billion parts of edible seafood). Federal and state authorities will use these guidelines to determine the safety level for seafood and the associated advice for harvest and consumption.

Additional Resources

Florida Seafood Availability Hotline: 1-800-357-4273
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Seafood Information Page:
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Oil Spill Seafood Safety Information page: 

Bronson Emphasizes Safety of Florida SeafoodFlorida Department of of Agriculture and Consumer Services, May 3, 2010


What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish

March 2004EPA-823-R-04-005

2004 EPA and FDA Advice For:
Women Who Might Become Pregnant
Women Who are Pregnant
Nursing Mothers
Young Children

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. So, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.
However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
By following these 3 recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.
  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.
Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish:

  1. "What is mercury and methylmercury?"
    Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.
  2. "I'm a woman who could have children but I'm not pregnant - so why should I be concerned about methylmercury?"
    If you regularly eat types of fish that are high in methylmercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream over time. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is the reason why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid eating certain types of fish.
  3. "Is there methylmercury in all fish and shellfish?"
    Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA.
  4. "I don't see the fish I eat in the advisory. What should I do?"
    If you want more information about the levels in the various types of fish you eat, see theFDA food safety website or the EPA website.
  5. "What about fish sticks and fast food sandwiches?"
    Fish sticks and "fast-food" sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.
  6. "The advice about canned tuna is in the advisory, but what's the advice about tuna steaks?"
    Because tuna steak generally contains higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of tuna steak per week.
  7. "What if I eat more than the recommended amount of fish and shellfish in a week?"
    One week's consumption of fish does not change the level of methylmercury in the body much at all. If you eat a lot of fish one week, you can cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.
  8. "Where do I get information about the safety of fish caught recreationally by family or friends?"
    Before you go fishing, check your Fishing Regulations Booklet for information about recreationally caught fish. You can also contact your local health department for information about local advisories. You need to check local advisories because some kinds of fish and shellfish caught in your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. This depends on the levels of mercury in the water in which the fish are caught. Those fish with much lower levels may be eaten more frequently and in larger amounts.
For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit FDA's Food Safetywebsite.
For further information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, visit theEnvironmental Protection Agency's Fish Advisory website or contact your State or Local Health Department. For information on EPA's actions to control mercury, visit EPA's mercury website.

This document is also available in brochure format in both English and Spanish.


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