It is estimated that 207 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gulf oil rig accident which occurred on April 20 2010. The oil leak was eventually sealed on July 15, however the US seafood industry has been dealt a heavy blow as the Gulf of Mexico is a major source of shrimp, fin fish and mollusks.

After the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in conjunction with the Gulf States (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) closed about one third of the Gulf of Mexico to seafood harvesting, the seafood catch in June 2010 declined by over 50%. The situation seems to be improving, in August only about 23% of the Gulf of Mexico waters were closed for fishing and with the shrimp harvesting season currently in progress, the industry is hoping to rebound.1

Seafood Safety Concerns

The main area of concern to consumers, retailers and the food service industry purchasing seafood from the gulf is the toxic effects of oil on seafood items which stems from the environmental chemical contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs may accumulate in seafood products at high levels resulting in illness among the seafood consuming population. Additionally there are concerns that petroleum based contaminants may cause cancer and neurological damage.2

The degree of oil exposure to seafood depends on the species of seafood and the manner in which exposure occurs. Mollusks such as oysters and clams are filter feeders whereby the mollusks can absorb oil when exposed to it. Additionally as oil disperses or naturally breaks down these filter feeders will absorb oil droplets they are exposed to.

Shrimp and other crustaceans can be exposed directly to oil or can absorb oil contaminants through contaminated plants and animal material that they may consume. Crustaceans that are found in shallow areas are exposed to a higher risk than those found in deeper waters. Finfish, predators in nature, can be exposed to oil and PAHs while passing through oil patches by absorbing contaminants through the gills or the gut. Additionally, fin fish can absorb oil contaminants through the consumption of other species that have been exposed to and have absorbed oil contaminants.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the oil dispersants being utilized by BP in cleaning up the oil spill to be less toxic to marine life then the oil that was spilled. Oil dispersants generally dissipate within a few days. However, the long term effects of the dispersants on aquatic life are unknown.

Safety Measures Being Taken

NOAA has vessels collecting seafood product samples for testing in their laboratories. NOAA employs fish sniffers that perform sensory evaluations to determine if the fish have been tainted by oil. NOAA scientists also perform Liquid Chromatograph and Mass Spectrometer (LC/MS) testing on the seafood meat to identify potential PAHs contaminations. Testing has been heightened in order to make sure no contaminated products are sold.

Additionally, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has notified the seafood industry that regulation 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 123 requires environmental chemical contaminants such as PAHs to be incorporated into Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans in order for the industry to prevent the sale and consumption of potentially contaminated fish and fishery products.3 FDA has also notified shellfish (mollusk) suppliers that they are prohibited from harvesting shellfish from closed areas under 21 CFR 128.28 and all shellfish (mollusk) are to be tagged to identify the harvester’s license, date and location of harvesting.4 Water and seafood products can both be tested for oil and oil contaminants such as PAHs. The typical instrumentation used for testing is a Gas Chromatograph coupled with a Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) or a Liquid Chromatograph coupled with a Mass Spectrometer (LC/MS).

SGS Food Safety Services has capabilities to performing both water and seafood product analysis.


James Cook
Food Safety Technologist

SGS U.S. Testing Company, Inc.
t +1 973 461 1493

1 Talks on Shrimp Season Signals Comeback for Gulf Fishers
2 Centers for Disease Control “Toxicological Profile for Petroleum Hydrocarbons”
3 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Update
4 FDA Letter to the Fish and Fishery Product Industry Regarding the Gulf of Mexico Spill

About SGS

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