Passing the Sniff Test: How the Government Decides Gulf Shrimp Is Oil-Free Enough to Eat
Last Thursday, in commemoration of "World Oceans Day," the Smithsonian Institution staged a panel of experts, plus actor turned activist Ted Danson, to discuss the safety of seafood procured from the Gulf of Mexico following last summer's disastrous oil spill. The discussion was followed by a wine and dinner reception featuring several of the region's top chefs, where, curiously, only about a quarter of the prepared seafood came from the gulf.
While the evening's menu may not have inspired a ton of confidence in the overall health of the gulf's bounty, the panelists did their best to put a good face on a dubious situation.
Herewith, three things Young & Hungry fished from the confab:
- No, really, the feds did a good job of assisting the cleaning up. The consensus of the evening seemed to be that the U.S. government responded pretty well to the ecological element of the disaster. Most panelists seemed to agree that breadth and pace of the clean-up was, overall, appropriate. Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafood, Inc., called it "an excellent job." Voisin should know: his company was the last major fisher left in the region as of September 2010. Critics have suggested that safety standards may have been low. Five months after oil stopped gushing into the Gulf, 90 percent of the waters were declared safe.
- A team of seven expert "smellers" hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration helped to decide when fish was safe to consume again. “The expert sniffer can detect … about one drop [of oil] in a gallon of water,” says Louisiana State University food scientist Lucina Lampila. In addition to a crack team of olfactory specialists, the government helped train seafood processors so they could tell if something, um, fishy was going on with each catch.
- Fishermen cleaned the gulf more effectively than private contractors: Turns out, people whose livelihood depends on the sea are much better at taking care of it. “One of the most exciting things that I heard was that fishermen were outpacing [contractors] by a margin of about 20-to-1,” says Voisin.
Just because the Gulf of Mexico is deemed safe to fish again doesn't necessarily mean that everything's kosher. Panelists noted that larvae and other young fish populations remain at risk. As Lampila told the audience, "There is very real concern about long-term impacts that we just won’t know for a while."