Despite recent reports suggesting the FDA’s screening process for gulf seafood contaminants leaves room for improvement, state officials remain confident in the product’s safety.

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonpartisan environmental advocacy group, filed a petition with the FDA, demanding that the agency “recognize the hazards posed by PAHs in seafood and set a health protective standard.” Researchers with the NRDC suggest that the FDA has failed to properly assess levels of PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) in seafood that was likely affected by last year’s gulf oil spill.

According to Jo Marie Cook, chief of the Bureau of Chemical Residue Laboratories for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the FDA limits weren’t established “in a vacuum.”

“There was a lot of work done to establish those levels, especially in the Southern states,” she says. “The levels of concern were established in a very open forum with a lot of scientists present to give them input. But it’s a very, very complicated issue.”

The state complies with the limits set forth by the FDA and has, since August 2010, tested 358 samples of Gulf seafood — including lobster, clams, oysters, fin fish and shrimp. Cook says the state currently collects about 20 samples per week to test for PAHs and dispersants. The department intends to increase its samplings once additional staff is trained, which should occur within the year. State laboratories also plan to expand their screening of seafood to include metals sometime in the near future. A portion of BP funds given to the state will be used to add staff and to continue monitoring potentially affected seafood.

“We aren’t finding anything,” says Cook. “If we find anything at all, it’s extremely low levels, like 1/1,000th of any level of concern. So most of what we do are non-detects.”

When asked whether the FDA’s methods are, perhaps, not good enough, Cook says she remains so confident in the safety of Florida’s seafood that she consumes it herself.

“There are certain limited populations that live right on the coast, and they may eat seafood day in and day out as part of their diet,” she says. “So that’s got to be evaluated by the statisticians that do risk assessment.”

The state has had to battle the perceptions of unsafe gulf seafood since the April 2010 explosion and fire aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling unit. Though the spill occurred over a year ago, consumer confidence in seafood has remained low. An April 2011 survey found that 63 percent of Floridians had concerns over seafood safety, up from 48 percent in January.

Just last month, the state’s Department of Agriculture launched an online training program for Florida restaurant workers to learn to answer common questions about the safety of gulf seafood.

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