FDA Underestimates Gulf Coast Residents' Exposure to Carcinogens in Seafood

NRDC Survey: Gulf Locals Eat 3 to12 Times More Seafood than FDA Estimates, Revealing Need for Better Seafood Safety Standards

WASHINGTON, DC (December 8, 2010) -- A survey of Gulf Coast seafood consumption habits released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council reveals that many Gulf residents are eating far more seafood, far more often, than the federal government has acknowledged, bringing seafood safety standards under renewed scrutiny. Significant discrepancies between estimates by the Food and Drug Administration and reported consumption rates were found, 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.

“It’s common knowledge that people in the Gulf love their seafood. When we think of food from the region we think of po-boys and gumbo, oyster bakes and jambalaya. Yet despite this, FDA has been setting safety standards for cancer-causing chemicals based on nationwide seafood consumption rates -- failing to take the uniqueness of the regional diet into consideration. And this is a problem, because it means that current FDA standards may also be failing to adequately protect many people in the Gulf,” said Dr. Gina Solomon a senior scientist with NRDC. Additional comments by Dr. Solomon can be found in her blog post “It’s the Dose That Makes the Poison”.

In June 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a protocol for determining safe levels for cancer-causing chemicals from oil (PAHs) in Gulf seafood. The protocol was guided by seafood consumption rates derived from national data, rather than from a Gulf Coast survey or other surveys of frequent fish consumers. Based on this national data, FDA assumed that people eat just two meals of fish and one meal of shrimp per week, with no more than 3 ounces of shrimp per meal (approximately four jumbo shrimp).

NRDC’s survey released today looked at the eating habits of 547 Gulf Coast residents living in counties bordering the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The survey revealed that the rate of shrimp consumption in coastal communities significantly exceeded the estimates used by FDA to calculate a safe level of exposure to PAHs. Actual consumption rates ranged from 3.6 to 12.1 times higher than FDA estimates. Some subpopulations, particularly Vietnamese-Americans, also reported appreciably higher seafood consumption rates across the board (fish, shrimp, oyster, crab), than other survey respondents and FDA estimates. Although the survey did not represent a random sample, the results are noteworthy in that they clearly show that a considerable portion of Gulf Coast residents eat substantially more seafood than reflected in FDA’s risk assessment.

In addition, many of survey respondents may be more vulnerable to contaminants in seafood than FDA accounted for due to smaller body weight: 60% reported that they weighed less than the weight estimate used by FDA to establish seafood safety, and more than 40% of respondents reported having children at home who eat seafood.  NRDC and Gulf groups remain concerned that when coupled with increased consumption rates, this can result in a significantly increased exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. And while the FDA has posted data that show very low levels of PAHs in seafood, flawed sampling procedures have led many experts to doubt the reliability of those results.

“Many Vietnamese-Americans in the Gulf eat seafood almost daily. We need to know that FDA is using strong guidelines that protect everyone in our community, not just the people who eat four jumbo shrimp a week,” said Jennifer Vu, co-coordinator of Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese-American Fisherfolks and Families.

In August, nearly two dozen Gulf Coast groups and NRDC commented on FDA’s assumptions in a formal letter to the Agency saying that, in their judgment, these numbers significantly underestimate local seafood consumption.

In light of the NRDC survey results, 36 Gulf Coast groups along with NRDC sent a letter to FDA today calling on the agency to expedite the reassessment of the cut-off levels used for contaminants in Gulf seafood to assure that local dietary patterns and other vulnerabilities are incorporated, arguing that FDA’s current contaminant cut-offs routinely underestimate local seafood consumption and are inadequate to protect the health of local populations.