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Is Gulf Seafood Really Safe to Eat? Government Withholding Key Data on Seafood Testing, Scientists Say

Outside scientists, eager to perform independent evaluations of the government's findings, complain the information released contains far too many unknown variables.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FDA officials maintain they've provided results of ongoing Gulf seafood safety tests with the utmost transparency. But outside scientists, eager to perform independent evaluations of the government's findings, complain the information released contains far too many unknown variables that preclude peer review.

In recent interviews, FDA and NOAA officials told Raw Story that they've been completely transparent in sharing ongoing Gulf seafood testing data, protocol and methodologies.

Whenever we reopened [waters], we'd post the data that we used and the FDA certified it as good enough to reopen," said NOAA spokeswoman Christine Patrick. "So that's all publicly available and it has been since we started reopening."

"There's nothing we are withholding," echoed FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott.

Yet in wide-ranging interviews with Raw Story, multiple independent scientists involved in studying the effects of the Gulf oil spill not only revealed that government claims of sufficient transparency are wholly misleading, but they also provided several key examples of how withholding this information precludes independent evaluation and opens a raft of critical unanswered questions.

Raw Story's investigation also found that federal officials continue to publicly claim (as they as did as well in our interviews) that Gulf states follow the agreed-upon protocol set by NOAA and FDA for the reopening of previously closed waters.

But scientists in close discussions with these agencies informed Raw Story that the Gulf states are actually making their decisions for reopening waters on a case-by-case basis with no consistent set criteria -- making the basis for state reopenings of previously closed waters an even greater unknown for independent scientists.

Released data insufficient for independent evaluation

"We're a little worried that these samples so far may not be as thorough as they might need to be and there could be areas that are missed," said Gina Solomon, a doctor and public health expert in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

"That's the fundamental concern," added Solomon, a co-author of the recent peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study on Gulf seafood safety.

Timothy Fitzgerald, a marine scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who testified last week to the National Oil Spill Commission, said, "Given the work that we do and the level of resolution we usually rely on, if they're going to provide technical detail I would very much like them to actually provide it in as raw a form as possible."

"What they've done in a lot of instances is [provide] kind of first or second order binning or summarizing or distilling, which makes a lot of the data unusable or unavailable," Fitzgerald continued.

"It's not that it doesn't exist," he said. "It's just that it hasn't been provided in a way that scientists could really make a lot of use out of it."

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a contributor to the JAMA study, said there is no clear description of the scientific method being applied to determine how they select the locations to sample, how many samples they take, or how they are sampling to ensure that the areas they are reopening are free of oil.

"All of this remains information that we have asked various different agencies for, and this includes NOAA and the FDA, and they have not provided it," Ellman said. "It's not part of the materials that are on their website and it remains this very big blank to the transparency of how these safety considerations are being made."

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