Pollution Narrows Shellfish Harvest

By Ballentine, Carol | FDA Consumer, February 1985 | Go to article overview

Pollution Narrows Shellfish Harvest


Ballentine, Carol, FDA Consumer


On June 14, 1984, the Clarkstown (N.Y.) High School faculty had a picnic at which hard-shell clams were eaten. In the next few days, 27 of the picnickers became ill. The illness was traced to the clams, which turned out to be contaminated. As a result, the New York State Health Department prohibited the sale of clams to restaurants or institutions within the state by the supplier, Adams Clam Co., Patchogue, Long Island. The state also notified FDA's shellfish specialist in New York. When there is the possibility of contaminated shellfish being shipped in interstate commerce, FDA shellfish specialists can alert the appropriate state agencies. In this case, however, a check by FDA found that the firm had gone out of business.

Compare this story with the events that occurred in the winter of 1924. At that time, there wer several outbreaks of typhoid fever due to consumption of oysters in New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. About 1,500 people got sick and 150 died. But no regulatory agency stepped in because at that time there was no national shellfish sanitation program and the regulations that existed were, obviously, ineffective.

The illnesses in the 1924 outbreak were much publicized and frightened people so much that they stopped eating oysters. Sales dropped dramatically, and the shellfish industry appealed to the Publlic Health Service to develop a program that would restore confidence in their product. Thus was born the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP), a triumvirate of state health agencies, the shellfish industry, and the Public Health Service (currently represented by the Food and Drug Administration). Before the organization was formed, state agencies had tried to monitor the shellfish after they were harvested. But the NSSP put the horse before the cart by emphasizing the monitoring of shellfish-growing areas to prevent harvesting from polluted waters.

The term shellfish in this context is limited to oysters, clams and mussels. Other species of shellfish (such as crabs, scallops and shrimp) are not included because, while commercially valuable, they are not as vulnerable to contamination through pollution of their beds.

For oysters, clams and mussels, the home is all important. Whatever contaminants are in the water will get into the shellfish, and usually at higher concentrations. This is because the shellfish take in food and oxygen by filtering particulate matter (such as plankton, which forms the bulk of their diet) from seawater. In the process, they also store up bacteria, viruses and other contaminants. This is why shellfish should only be harvested from clean water. (See "For Oyster And Clam Lovers, The Water Must Be Clean" in the October 1984 FDA Consumer.)

For close to 50 years, the federal-state-industry program did well. There were no massive outbreaks of illness due to shellfish consumption; in fact, bacterial diseases caused by eating shellfish became a rarity.

Then, in 1972, FDA, which was responsible for reviewing the states' shellfish programs, rated Virginia's as unsatisfactory and threatened to withdraw its endorsement of the state's program. Virginia challenged FDA's authority to do this and threatened to go to court. When FDA reviewed its legal position, it concluded that the NSSP had not been properly implemented and that FDA really did not have the power to enforce the program's standards. When FDA proposed regulations designed to correct this problem and strengthen shellfish sanitation, Congress interceded by placing a moratorium on the promulgation of these standards and requesting that FDA conduct a cost analysis to determine the benefits of the program and the new regulations. In effect, FDA had no sanction to enforce NSSP requirements.

One concern that led to this turn of events was the shellfish industry's dissatisfaction with the standard on growing areas. The fundamental principal of the NSSP is that shellfish should not be harvested from polluted waters, and that shellfishing from such waters can be prohibited even though there is no evidence that the shellfish themselves are polluted. …

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