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<DIV id=post_message_620315>Agency to issue seafood warning

By Mark Collette
The Daily News
Published December 18, 2007

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will issue a letter to seafood processors instructing them to update their safety plans and to avoid buying certain fish caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico after outbreaks of a type of poisoning that was once rare here.

The advisory applies to about 13 species of fish caught within a 50-mile radius of the coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. It follows months of research by the FDA after The Daily News in April reported the first recent case of ciguatera fish poisoning from a grouper caught 100 miles off the coast of Galveston.

Only a few such cases had been reported in the past 25 years, researchers said, but subsequent testing of fish has revealed that ciguatera poisoning is now ?a reasonably likely hazard? for some species caught in the northern Gulf, the FDA said in the letter.

The FDA did not respond Monday to questions about the letter, signed by David Acheson, acting director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. But researchers familiar with it said the agency planned to make it public this week.

Tracy Villareal, a toxic algae expert at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, said the grouper poisoning case reported in April ?really kind of started the whole thing ... It was a smoking gun. We had ciguatera, we had the fish, we had toxin.?

Ciguatera toxin causes initial symptoms similar to food poisoning, but the toxin invades cells and works its way into the human nervous system, producing a range of problems.

Symptoms range from pain and insurmountable fatigue to more intangible problems, such as anxiety. A telltale sign is a reversal of hot and cold sensations. Illness can last weeks, months, or, in severe cases, years. It is rarely fatal.

Cases of ciguatera can be difficult to confirm because people don?t often save samples of the fish they ate. But when Galveston resident Greg Scofelia and his wife were sickened in April, they had several filets of the grouper left in their freezer.

Villareal said the new advisory ?has enormous implications? because it requires seafood processors to change their written food safety plans. The FDA requires processors to implement such plans to control hazards.

Until now, if a person got sick and sued a seafood processor for selling a toxic fish caught in the northern Gulf, ?they can always point to the (FDA) guidelines and say, ?Well, there was no advisory,?? Villareal said.

The advisory will affect consumers nationwide, he said.

?It?s just such an exportable, high-value commodity that these things get flash frozen, or however they?re preserved, and then shipped all over the country.?

Scofelia and his wife were sick for more than two months. Their illnesses were followed by two cases in Alabama resulting from fish caught in the northwestern Gulf. The government then tested more fish.

G.P. Schmahl manages Flower Garden Banks for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which supported the testing project.

?I think there was like four out of 30 of those fish that came back over the testable limit of ciguatera toxin,? Schmahl said. ?Based on that information, the FDA went forward with this action.?

He said the advisory implies that it will remain in effect indefinitely, and the government intends to continue sampling fish over time to see if the toxin persists.

?We want to get the word out and at the same time don?t want to be too panicked about it, or too blasé about it,? Schmahl said. ?But the advisory is pretty firmly worded.?

Although it?s the most common form of seafood poisoning, ciguatera is so rare in most places that physicians often have never heard of it or know little about it, experts say. It?s better known in Florida and the Caribbean, where it has long been a problem. The state of Florida requires physicians to report cases, although it?s still unclear how many people are sickened each year. Experts estimate between 50,000 and 500,000 cases yearly.

There is no antidote, and no amount of boiling, grilling, frying, baking or microwaving will remove the toxin from a fish.

It doesn?t change the taste or texture of meat, and there is no reliable, commercially available test. The only surefire way to detect it, aside from complex, expensive tests in a government laboratory, is to see whether it makes a person sick.

Some researchers, such as Villareal, are now suggesting that a confluence of events, including the proliferation of oil platforms and warmer ocean temperatures, could make the western Gulf of Mexico a perfect place for ciguatera to expand and sicken more people.

Ciguatoxin is produced by the single-celled organism Gambierdiscus toxicus.

G. toxicus grows on algae connected to hard surfaces in warm ocean waters, ideally at about 82 degrees, Villareal said. Fish and other plant-eaters consume it. The toxin then works its way up the food chain into bigger fish such as snapper, barracuda, amberjack, mackerel and the grouper Scofelia caught.

Villareal and a team of researchers examined six petrochemical platforms off Port Aransas in 2003. All six had G. toxicus.

Oil production platforms didn?t exist in the Gulf before 1942, but now there are about 4,000, forming what could be the largest artificial reef complex in the world.

When factoring this together with warmer water temperatures and expanding migration patterns of fish such as barracuda ? documented to have traveled from South Florida to South Texas ? ciguatera ?is unlikely to diminish and could increase,? Villareal wrote.

Scofelia?s dubious catch remains in his freezer in Galveston, inside bags marked with a big, black marker: ?Do not eat.?

He said he plans to destroy it if researchers tell him they don?t need more samples.

Scofelia, whose hands still burn sometimes when he places them under cold water, praised the government for its research and subsequent warnings.

?It needs to be that way,? he said. ?The almighty dollar isn?t worth getting somebody sick or possibly killing them.?

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Species Of Fish To Avoid

The FDA recommends that primary seafood processors avoid purchasing these species:

? Caught within 10 miles of Flower Garden Banks: marbled grouper, hogfish, blackfin snapper, dog snapper, gag grouper, scamp grouper, yellowfin grouper.

? Caught within 50 miles of Flower Garden Banks: yellow jack, horse-eye jack, black jack, king mackerel, amberjack, barracuda.</DIV>
 

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<DIV id=post_message_620814>Follow up article from Galveston Daily News:

More illnesses tied to Gulf fish

By Mark Collette
The Daily News
Published December 19, 2007

Health officials and seafood suppliers confirmed that 29 people have fallen ill in the St. Louis area after eating a fish caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico, underscoring an emerging threat of ciguatera toxin, a poison that once was seldom found in fish caught in that part of the Gulf.

Although it has inspected the Louisiana supplier that originally processed the amberjack that sickened people in St. Louis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the second day in a row declined to confirm plans to issue a new advisory to American seafood processors.

The FDA drafted the letter to seafood processors following months of research on fish caught near the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a system of coral reefs about 100 miles off the coast of Galveston.

The tests, which confirmed ciguatera toxin in some fish, followed the poisoning of a Galveston couple that caught a grouper at the sanctuary in March, and two other cases in Alabama.

The Daily News obtained the FDA letter on Monday. Independent researchers have confirmed it has been distributed via e-mail in the scientific community, and that the FDA planned to release it soon, possibly this week.

But FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said Tuesday she could not confirm nor deny its existence.

Meanwhile, Bob Mepham, owner of Bob?s Seafood, where the amberjack suspected to be toxic was sold to two St. Louis-area restaurants, said fish suppliers need guidance from the federal government as soon as possible so they can make informed decisions about what fish they can market safely.

?I think they?re in the cover-your-ass business,? Mepham said, referring to the government. ?I?m crying for some answers on how to tell people that they?re safe.?

He said he?s been in business for 30 years and never had this happen.

?I?ve had an outpouring of people coming and buying from me just to let me know I can be trusted,? he said.

?If this happens a second time, I don?t think they?re going to be quite on my side, and besides that, it?s just morally indefensible to be making your living getting people sick.?

Until he hears otherwise from the FDA, he?s nixing amberjack from his market.

Health officials and researchers say there was no way for the restaurants or suppliers to know the amberjack was toxic, and until samples of the fish are tested in a government laboratory, they won?t have 100 percent confirmation, either.

But the people who have fallen ill since late November have exhibited telltale signs of ciguatera, said John Shelton, spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department.

Illness begins with symptoms similar to a run-of-the-mill stomach ailment, including vomiting and diarrhea, but later affects the central nervous system, causing a range of problems including tingling sensations, fatigue, anxiety and ? a classic symptom ? the reversal of hot and cold sensations. It is rarely fatal but can last weeks, months or years.

The toxin can?t be detected reliably with commercially available tests, and cooking fish won?t remove it.

It?s produced by algae that lives on hard surfaces, such as reefs or oil platforms, in warm ocean waters.

Fish consume the algae, and the toxin moves up the food chain, accumulating in large, reef-dwelling fish such as amberjack, grouper, barracuda and mackerel.

Ciguatera is well known in Florida and the Caribbean, but has long been rare in fish caught in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Until this year, there were only a few confirmed cases stemming from the northern Gulf in the past 25 years.

Toxic algae expert Tracy Villareal at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas said the number in the last 18 months has skyrocketed close to 60 with the most recent outbreak.

Confirmed cases are rare, because people are misdiagnosed, sometimes with more nefarious diseases such as multiple sclerosis or heart disease, and they don?t often save portions of the fish they ate.

That leaves scientists to a broad estimate of 50,000 to 500,000 cases annually worldwide.

But the new cases coming from the northern Gulf could signify a shift in climatological and other factors that may be allowing the toxin to proliferate in new areas, Villareal said.

?It really is some strong evidence that we probably are seeing the development of a local ciguatera problem, but again, it?s a difficult thing to prove, because you have to prove the negative: that it?s not coming from migrating fish,? he said.

His research has confirmed toxic algae on oil platforms in the northern Gulf, and FDA research this summer confirmed ciguatera toxin in multiple fish caught at Flower Garden Banks.

Karen Hopkins of Blanchard Seafood, the primary processor of the amberjack linked to the St. Louis cases, said the fish was caught within 40 miles of Flower Garden Banks.

That falls within the 50-mile radius that is the subject of the letter that the FDA won?t confirm.

In the letter, the FDA urges primary seafood processors to revamp their safety plans.

FDA first published the seafood ?hazard analysis and critical control point? regulation in 1995, requiring processors to have written safety plans.

It instructs processors to avoid purchasing fish captured in areas known to have ciguatera toxin.

In the original regulation, that didn?t include the northern Gulf.

But the new letter that the FDA has yet to publicly release says ciguatera is now ?a reasonably likely hazard? for 13 species in the northern Gulf within a 50-mile radius of Flower Garden Banks.

The amberjack from Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, La., emphasizes the significance of the FDA letter, because health officials now suspect that a single, 60-pound fish, distributed inland, processed and served in separate places, sickened 29 people.

Hopkins, who emphasized that the FDA inspection turned up no problems at Blanchard Seafood, said the business has already drafted a new purchase agreement for the fishing fleets that supply it, requiring them to pledge that the fish they supply weren?t caught near Flower Garden Banks.

She said reef fish account for about 9 percent of business.

?We definitely do make a good bit of money on that 9 percent, but it?s not what?s keeping us in business.?

She said she expects the industry to clamor for a reliable test so fleets won?t have to stop fishing certain areas.

Villareal said such a test is years away, at best.

Only a few laboratories around the country have the ability to perform complex, expensive tests to detect ciguatera toxin, and the tests aren?t practical for regular commercial use.

In the meantime, he?s trying to convince the federal government, recreational fishermen, and the academic community to team up on research to determine where the ciguatera hot spots are, whether they are seasonal, and how widespread the problem is.

?We can get these answers, but the problem is that we have to maximize the available resources because there simply is not the money available to do this,? he said.

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Something Fishy

The FDA is poised to recommend that primary seafood processors avoid purchasing these species:

? Caught within 10 miles of Flower Garden Banks: marbled grouper, hogfish, blackfin snapper, dog snapper, gag grouper, scamp grouper, yellowfin grouper.

? Caught within 50 miles of Flower Garden Banks: yellow jack, horse-eye jack, black jack, king mackerel, amberjack, barracuda.</DIV>
 

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"The amberjack from Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, La., emphasizes the significance of the FDA letter, because health officials now suspect that a single, 60-pound fish, distributed inland, processed and served in separate places, sickened 29 people."

I thinking the math here- 60# AJ had 29 servings. At 1/3% gross weight yield, that's less thats about a 12-14 oz fillet. Those are small portions, so I guess it doesn't take a large portion to get sick.

Wonder when will see it in our area.
 

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Maybe from some pelagics? I dont think we have enough coral to infect the others. But what the hell do I know.
 

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I am concerned about this, and looking to help anyway I can.

If you catch any fish in the Gulf of Mexico from the following list:

Grouper

Snapper

Amberjack

Tuna

Trigger

Flounder

Please bring them to me, and I will test each one personally for cigutera by eating it.

I know, I know, thats a big sport of me, but you all are really good people, and I would do this for you.

By the way, Brandy, birng some whiskey when you come pick me up to go to Dalton and Michelles. I'm sick of beer.
 

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Clay that is a very unselfish thig for you to do, I cannot let you do this by yourself so please forward half of this to me and I will sacrafise myself as well
 

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i too will help ya'll. crap i will even bring some whiskey. what kind ya want clay? my fellow PFFer's are to valuable to get sick, so let us help "check" your fish.:letsdrink
 
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