Mexican Gulf Seafood: Test Results Clean After Oil Spill

As shrimp season starts, The Daily Beast tested the Gulf's seafood for oil and dispersant, and the results were immaculate. If Gulf and Atlantic seafood are equally safe, why won't America buy?

Louisiana shrimpers should have celebrated last week. White shrimp season started just as BP’s contractors moved to seal the well that has spewed 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf that gives them their livelihood. Yet the mood on the bayou, by all accounts, was deflated: America has shunned Gulf seafood, adding yet another blow to an economically devastated region.

So is the caution among America’s seafood consumers justified? Seeking a definitive answer to the question, The Daily Beast commissioned an independent lab, one of a handful certified to measure chemical dispersants, to analyze a cross-section of Gulf seafood—red grouper, jumbo shrimp, and crabmeat—for both oil and the dispersants that have prompted almost as much alarm as the petroleum itself. To further sharpen the test, we also performed similar tests on samples of those three types of seafood culled from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Daily Beast’s independent results indicate that the process is working. So where are the customers?

The results? Immaculate. As with the Atlantic samples, all of the Gulf seafood contained either undetectable or incredibly minute (well below everyday federal thresholds) levels of petroleum hydrocarbons or dispersants.

While these were just three random Gulf samples—these independent results nevertheless appear to provide some vindication for the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which coordinated the food sector aspect of the federal and local response to the country’s worst-ever oil spill. More than 52,000 square miles—about 22 percent of the Gulf’s federal waters—remain closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

Under FDA protocol, federal and state authorities each must determine that any patch of water is both free from oil and chemicals, both presently and in the near-term. Then, the state in question must submit an approved number of samples, where samples are given sensory tested (primarily, viewed and smelled) for oil, dispersants, or any type of contamination. From there, they are then sent to an FDA lab for confirmatory chemical testing.

"We are confident in the process for reopening and protective controls that were developed and agreed to,” Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tells The Daily Beast. “However, we recognize that long-term efforts are required to ensure the safety of Gulf seafood, and remain vigilant in our continued collaboration with all state and federal agencies."

Yet with all that testing in place—and The Daily Beast’s independent results, which indicate that the process is working—America has turned its collective back on Gulf seafood. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week, 54 percent of Americans are not confident that Gulf seafood is safe to eat.

And the results of such sentiments are felt directly on the Gulf. “Normally, at this time, the buyers are hunting me down and this year it seems like I’m working on securing buyers,” said Kim Chauvin, a third-generation shrimper and co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Company, part of Louisiana’s $1.3 billion pre-spill shrimp industry. “Demand has fallen off drastically. Sales that were secure prior to the spill were canceled. I had one customer who said that he bought Indonesian shrimp instead.”

Chauvin says that less than a quarter of the area’s shrimp fleet was out at sea last week—the industry employs 14,000 people in Louisiana alone—due to low prices. Many of them, ironically, have chosen instead to work for BP on oil cleanup, via its Vessels of Opportunity program. “Our biggest hurdle is going to be to try and get our market back,” said Chauvin. “If we can’t build the confidence back into the consumer, we are done.”

For the moment, demand for Gulf seafood is limited to the Gulf area. The decreased production levels are enough to meet home demand, but a national market will be needed to restore the industry. A large national demand should actually decrease prices overall, but provide exponentially more volume, which will give the shrimpers a way to make a living. A similar dynamic is in play for other Gulf seafood, with the exception of oysters, which have basically been wiped out this year.

In order to test seafood, we ordered two batches—one from the Gulf area and, for a control variable, one domestic sample not from the Gulf. We commissioned Environmental Systems Service, an environmental testing and food and dairy analysis company based in Culpeper, Virginia, to perform the testing in conjunction with a partner laboratory. The samples were tested for oil using the EPA test method for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and for the Corexit 9500 and 9527 dispersant components Propylene Glycol and 2-Butoxyethanol (a full list of components can be found here).

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We purchased large shrimp sourced in the Southeast coast, lump crabmeat sourced in Maryland, and red grouper sourced on the Southeast coast from Charleston Seafood, an online purveyor that processes all seafood from its headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina. As well, we ordered large shrimp, lump crabmeat, and red grouper from Louisiana’s Best Seafood, a retail and wholesale distributor based in Kenner, Louisiana. All samples from Louisiana’s Best were sourced from open fishing waters on the Gulf. Both vendors shipped samples overnight on ice to our lab in Virginia.

None of the samples were found to contain detectable amounts of selected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or dispersant ingredients.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “Perception, by far, is going to be our biggest challenge.” Smith has requested that BP fund a marketing campaign, similar to a 10-year Exxon effort after the Exxon Valdez spill that touted Alaskan seafood. Even then, he says, it will take five years to rebuild the industry.

“We’ve been in business over 115 years, for five generations,” adds Sean Desporte, co-owner of Desporte and Sons Seafood, a distributor in Biloxi, Mississippi, whose business has been halved. “We are hoping that people all around the U.S. would like to try to help us get back to where we were.”

Lauren Streib oversaw this report.