Trenton — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued New Jersey an ultimatum – either shape up your public health program or risk a consumption ban on the state’s shellfish, according to a letter from a top FDA official released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). FDA directed the state to present “a plan to address the deficiencies outlined” by August 2, 2010 or face sanctions that would make New Jersey shellfish “no longer be accepted in interstate commerce” – a move that would cripple the state’s billion dollar market for oysters, clams, mussels and scallops.
The June 2, 2010 letter from FDA Regional Director Melinda Plaister to Robert Martin, Director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was not revealed by DEP in recent legislative hearings on the subject. PEER obtained the letter under the state Open Public Records Act. Among the issues raised by the FDA is the state’s failure to address the pollution threat caused by –
“…overboard discharge of human waste from harvest vessels.…Human waste discharge from shellfish harvest vessels has led to serious illness outbreaks in the past….”
In fact, the FDA “Annual Program Evaluation Report of the State of New Jersey Shellfish Program” for Fiscal Year 2009 found “ a number of sporadic Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), cases that…implicated molluscan shellfish” but the state did not declare an illness outbreak.
“Failure to prevent dumping of human wastes onto shellfish beds denotes a deep disconnect in our state’s environmental leadership,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that last week DEP Commissioner Martin spent time unveiling an elaborate new seven-page Vision Statement filled with lofty rhetoric. “DEP’s vision will be impaired if its head remains between its legs. We need Christie administration officials to concentrate on competent performance of vital public health services.”
FDA also cites deficient levels of patrols and enforcement, noting that the state has not refilled positions as they become vacant. For example, one inspector responsible for almost 30% of the state oversight retired in 2008 and has yet to be replaced. To aggravate the situation, New Jersey is slated to expand its oyster Vp Control program statewide this summer but has no additional staffing. As a result, state marine health-related enforcement capacity is still contracting while the need for enhanced enforcement grows.
The state hiring moratorium is complicating its efforts to counteract attrition in marine patrols and inspections. Nonetheless, DEP is now undergoing a reorganization (termed a “Transformation”) which entails several promotions and new high-paying slots in the Commissioner’s office, including a senior advisor for Economic Growth Coordination.
“We do not need more suits in Trenton. We need more marine patrol officers and inspectors if we want to keep New Jersey shellfish on consumers’ tables,” Wolfe added, pointing out that as few as 10 additional staff added to shellfish-related duties would alleviate many of the concerns raised by FDA.
In recent days DEP has attacked research-related gardening of shellfish to improve water quality in the Hackensack River and Raritan Bay yet FDA did not cite this issue as a problem in its reviews.
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