Tomalley Trouble

Posted Aug. 01, 2008, at 12 a.m.

With warnings about tomatoes and then jalapeno peppers tainted with salmonella, food safety has been a concern this summer. So it is not surprising that a federal warning against eating lobster tomalley quickly led to fears about the crustaceans, resulting in a short-lived ban on lobster shipments to Japan.

The small risk from tomalley is nothing new, but an ominous-sounding warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has raised fears to a new level, leaving state and federal officials scrambling to clarify the warning and reassure the public that lobsters are safe to eat. The lesson, for consumers and regulators, is that the risk must be kept in perspective.

The public has been advised not to eat tomalley, the green substance found in the lobster body cavity, since 1994 because it functions like a liver, concentrating toxins found in the ocean. This year, toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, which are commonly called red tide, were an added concern after studies found them in lobster tomalley. There have been no reports of illness due to red tide toxins in lobster tomalley.

A major shortcoming in the FDA advisory was not reminding people that the tomalley warning is nothing new, which led to an unwarranted level of concern. Officials in Japan were so alarmed that they briefly banned imports of American lobster, also known as Maine lobster. Although Maine officials, who worked through the U.S. State Department and other federal agencies, say the ban has been lifted, it may be more difficult to restore public confidence in the safety of lobster.

The price of lobster has fallen since last year due to declining demand. Lobsters sold in Maine are about $1 cheaper per pound compared with last year. Industry officials blame the rising price of fuel and food taking money out of consumers’ pockets that could be spent on lobster dinners. Some also say fewer tourists are in the state this summer, eating fewer lobster dinners.

Lobstermen are also hurt by rising fuel and bait prices and worry that decreased demand could put some of them out of business.

The difficulty for regulators is to balance public risk against unnecessarily harming an industry. At a time of public sensitivity about food safety after hundreds of people were sickened by contaminated peppers, the FDA warning tipped this balance against lobsters, which haven’ t sickened anyone.

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