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FDA Says NJ Shellfish Program Does Not Meet Food Safety Standards

Christie Budget Fails To Fund FDA Requirements – Public Health & $1 Billion Industry at Risk

[Updates below]

The latest federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluation of NJ’s Shellfish food safety program has found several significant deficiencies.

These significant weaknesses in oversight of food safety go far beyond the single one noted by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin in his recent controversial move to target and terminate restoration research projects, allegedly on the basis of FDA public health concerns (See: Commissioner Aims to Protect Public Health and Shellfish Industry“).

The so called “shelllfish gardening” restoration research projects are an insignificant component of larger FDA documented failures by NJ to meet federal requirements. FDA identifies the “gardening” issue as an “emergent concern” and is equivocal in its review, even praising efforts of NJ to work with NY officials.

It is obvious that Martin used a high profile attack on the “gardening” issue to mask NJ’s failure to address far more serious and longstanding lack of compliance with FDA requirements that create risks to public health. Instead, Martin tried to create the Orwellian and false appearance that he is strictly protecting public health. This line from Martin’s press release is so incomplete and misleading that it amounts to a lie:

The state also wants to ensure compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.

The FDA “regulations” are focused on far more significant and chronic problems in NJ, including:

FDA found that NJ DEP and NJ Department of Health monitoring does not meet minimum fedeal requirements and as a result, there are threats to public health.

FDA found that the Christie Administration failed to fund previous commitments made to FDA to increase inspections and monitoring of NJ’s shellfish waters and food industry.

The FDA Report confirmed cases where consumption of contaminated NJ clams and oysters have led to illness and disease outbreaks, but that NJ claimed they were “sporadic” in nature and did not formally declare an outbreak and warn the public.

The FDA indicated that NJ’s coastal waters could be closed to shellfish harvesting as a result of these failure to correct chronic deficiences. NJ’s “inability to maintain compliance” with FDA requirements represents a major threat to the economic viability of NJ’s $1 billion shellfish industry and thousands of jobs.

The specific major flaws found by FDA’s evaluation of NJ’s program include:

1. The Department of Environmental Protection Marine Enforcement has insufficient staffing to meet patrol frequency requirements, particularly for patrols of prohibited, restricted, and closed areas that represent the greatest risks.

2. DEP has failed to purchase a larger and seaworthy vessel required to patrol NJ shellfish growing waters.

3. The DEP has failed to provide a previously agreed to Action Plan to address failure to meet patrol requirements and purhase a vessel.

4. Department of Health did not comply with inspection requirements for certified shellfish dealers. DHHS did not submit a previously required Action Plan to correct these violations. DHSS must develop an action plan to address its failure to meet inspection frequency requirements for shellfish processing and shipping

5. There has been a 30% shortfall in DEP marine water sampling due to loss of employees. DEP layoff and furlough policies seriously limit solutions to a chronic lack of adequate staff.

6. There remain waters in NJ that are clearly impacted by non-point source pollution, including the upper Navesink River, Sandy Hook Bay, and Shrewsbury River. Use of microbial pollution source tracking is needed.

7. NJ lacks regulations that prohibit overboard discharge of human bodily wastes and prevent the public health risks that resut from such discharges.

Read the full assessment and PEER analysis below.

Christie Cuts Jeopardize Jersey Shellfish Safety

New FDA Report Details Risks to State’s Billion Dollar Shellfish Industry

Trenton – Cutbacks in state inspections and enforcement “could negatively impact the public health as well as New Jersey’s large shellfish industry, according to a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluation released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Critical state reductions come just as the state is supposed to expand its disease prevention oversight on oysters.

The FDA “Annual Program Evaluation Report of the State of New Jersey Shellfish Program” for Fiscal Year 2009 faults a shrinking state commitment to protecting the public from contaminated shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels and scallops), including:

    • Deficient state “inspection frequency which fall below minimum levels”. As a result, “official inspections or investigations were not conducted at each Certified Shellfish Dealer receiving oysters” to determine compliance with the control plan for Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), a marine bacterium associated with food poisoning;
    • Inadequate enforcement patrols to prevent illegal shellfish harvesting. The FDA found that 70% of New Jersey designated Patrol Area (21 out of 30) “were not in compliance during one or more thirty day Patrol periods for FY 2009”; and
    • The situation is deteriorating as the state suffered a “roughly 30% shortfall in sampling” in 2008 from which it has still not recovered. In addition, the Christie budget removes “state budgeted line item” funding needed to sustain additional patrols in critical areas.

The FDA report concluded that “further cuts in these field functions will likely result in NJ’s inability to maintain compliance without the closure of a significant portion of New Jersey coastal waters to shellfish harvesting.

The Christie administration does not seem to grasp that we need tough public health enforcement to enable our economy to grow,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe.  “The Governor’s ham-handed budgetary approach is endangered a major industry and employer.”

Ironically, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin cited FDA as the cause for a controversial decision this June to ban research-related gardening of shellfish to improve water quality in the Hackensack River and Raritan Bay.  Yet, in contrast to other criticisms, the FDA report found that the DEP “continues to maintain an appropriate focus on the public health aspects of oyster/shellfish gardening” and complimented DEP cooperation with New York State on the program.

“DEP has seized on shellfish gardening as a red herring, no pun, intended, to divert public attention from deeper problems,” Wolfe added. “Bob Martin should be ashamed of himself for shutting down these constructive research and water quality efforts for political reasons.”


Read the FDA Report


View the DEP announced ban on shellfish gardening


Find out about the FDA shellfish sanitation program


Look at the DEP Seafood safety site


New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability

[Update #3: 7/20/10 – today’s Star Ledger editorial reverses their June 27 opinion in light of new information, and gets it right: Austerity creates feeble government in New Jersey.

As I’ve noted, the Ledger’s conclusion in that June 27 editorial, i.e. At a time when New Jersey is throwing people off health care programs and cutting tax credits for the working poor, we can’t spend money to boost our patrols.” was simply wrong and based on incomplete and inaccurate information and DEP spin. Let’s hope that Ledger editors and reporters, after having been deceived and spun badly by DEP, are more diligent before accepting DEP statements at face value.  ~~~ end update]

Update #2: 7/18/10 – with more shoes to drop, the real story finally begins to emerge despite DEP Commissioner Martin’s obfuscation. On Saturday, Kirk Moore of the Asbury Park Press wrote a fine story Feds: NJ didn’t patrol shellfish grounds which was followed today by the Star Ledger story  NJ’s oyster industry faces shutdown if federal health requirements are not met. More shoes to drop on this story.  ~~~ end update]

[Update #1: after talking to reporters who don’t seem to get it, let me say this simply:

NJ made commitments to the FDA to implement corrective actions to cure historical deficiencies “this summer” (2010).

The Christie Administration has not honored those commitments.

The question remains whether FDA will allow NJ to continue to flout federal food safety requirements.

But one thing is certain: the shit will hit the fan if there is a shellfish food poisoning outbreak.  ~~~ end update]

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