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Oil Dispersant---Next Food Safety Issue?
We hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief that the oil well was capped before the next issue surfaced. Tiny droplets of oil combined with an oil dispersant chemical have been found in the food chain.

Here’s what happened. Over 2 million gallons of oil dispersant were used to dissipate surface oil slicks from Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, the dispersant didn’t magically make the oil disappear. Instead, it broke the oil into tiny droplets that remain suspended underwater. The size of the droplets, along with the chemical properties of the dispersant, may make the combination more toxic than oil alone. Scientists are concerned that the blend can more easily penetrate cell walls, skin, and membranes. Those fears are being fanned by the fact that gulf coast crab larvae---which are a food source for other marine life---now test positive for oil dispersant.

Using dispersant to contain the spill was a known, calculated risk. It prevented some of the oil from reaching shore, and theoretically makes it easier for oil-eating bacteria to help with clean up. However, dispersant has never before been used in such large quantities. Its toxicity and consequences at this concentration are somewhat unknown.

Consumers are already highly sensitized to food safety issues. They have worried their way through spinach, peanut butter, and hamburger scares. They asked about seafood safety the minute the leak started, and were reassured many times that everything is okay. How will they react as the oil dispersant story spreads through the media?

We should think about...
  • What should we do to reassure consumers about the safety of our food products?
  • Are there any potential food safety issues we should address before they become problems?
  • How will the dispersant issue impact consumers’ trust of big companies and the government?
Sources: Huffington Post 2010; New York Times, 2010; NRDC, 2010
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