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 falls 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 Areas (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, noting that the state is slated to expand its Vp Control program for oysters statewide this summer without additional resources. “The Governor’s ham-handed budgetary approach is endangering 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.”
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