Glow-in-the-dark shrimp -- it's all a little fishy
Luminescent crustaceans bought in Seattle stores; FDA won't investigate
It sounds like a Halloween joke. A pile of brightly glowing cooked shrimp sitting on the counter in a darkened kitchen.
But Randall Peters doesn't see the humor in it. He bought the shrimp last week from the West Seattle Thriftway. He ate some that evening and returned to the kitchen a few minutes later.
"It was like a bright eerie light was shining on it," said Peters, who works for a natural food store.
"I thought that maybe it had been overirradiated, you know, too much radiation. Now, whenever I buy seafood, I take it home and turn out the lights."
Another batch of glowing shrimp apparently was bought at a Quality Food Center in Wallingford.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was not going to investigate the Seattle episodes because no "official, through-the-proper-channels" report was made.
"Further," a spokeswoman added, "it's not a food safety issue because no one got sick."
Glowing seafood has been reported in the past. A government report in the '90s said some products exhibited luminescence from the presence of certain light-emitting bacteria -- a chemical reaction similar to that found in fireflies. There are at least nine luminescent species of bacteria in salt water.
Andy Richards, manager of the seafood department at the Thriftway, calls the glowing shrimp "creepy."
He said he took Peters' report seriously but believes it's an isolated incident and doesn't present a health hazard.
"We don't hear a lot of complaints about glowing seafood, but then people rarely look at their shrimp and crab in the dark."
However, Richards admits that he might "take a peek" at the seafood now and then in a darkened freezer "just in case."
A caller who identified herself only as Barbara told the Seattle P-I on Monday that she had given some cooked shrimp she bought at the QFC in Wallingford to her three "very large" cats Sunday night as a "birthday treat."
An hour later, she said, she was frightened at what she found. She saw a greenish-blue glow coming from the cat bowl on the darkened porch. When she turned on the light, she found the six shrimp untouched. Her porky cats, which she said "would eat your leg off if you stood in one place long enough," didn't touch them.
She pulled open the refrigerator door. The light bulb had burned out weeks ago, she said, but the plastic bag holding the remaining shrimp glowed brightly in the chilled darkness.
Neither Peters nor Barbara, who also ate some of the shrimp, said they were made ill, just a bit queasy at the idea of consuming the glowing seafood.
"I wouldn't hesitate to eat the stuff," said Dr. Bill Robertson of the Washington Poison Center, when asked about the safety of consuming the glowing food.
"I don't know of any studies that show it's hazardous, but, then again, I can't envision anyone spending the money to do the costly tests to prove it's safe," the medical toxicologist said.
Some might expect the FDA would test glowing seafood.
Fortunately, the agency's Seafood Product Research Center is in Bothell. Unfortunately, it hasn't done anything on glowing seafood for almost a decade, said the center's spokeswoman, who declined to permit any of the scientists to discuss the topic. The spokeswoman said the only research into luminescent bacteria or phosphorescing phytoplankton in seafood was begun about 20 years ago by Patricia Sado, an FDA microbiologist.
Sado's study, which was published in 1998, examined reports of glowing seafood in the mid-1990s to health departments, poison centers and FDA offices across the country.
The products involved were imitation crabmeat, lobster and shrimp, herring, sardines and the always mysterious seafood salads.
Sometimes all that was left were the glowing plastic foam trays or empty wrappers.
A man in Aberdeen reported his fingers glowed after he and his wife ate some crabmeat.
Fresh, uncooked fish also were reported as glowing in the dark. A team of Environmental Protection Agency investigators evaluating the pollution of the Columbia River near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation were stopped by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. They had 200 to 300 pounds of brightly glowing fish -- whole king salmon they planned to use in a ceremony.
They were afraid to eat it because they believed the fish were radioactive, Sado reported. The analysis found the salmon -- skin, intestine and gills -- heavily contaminated with a bacterium called Photobacterium phosphoreum.
The reports the microbiologist collected listed only one death attributed to a bioluminescent seafood, and this was not from consumption of the bacterium but rather a 72-year-old man who cut himself while cleaning fish.
The ailments most often reported by Sado were headaches, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhea -- symptoms similar to most food poisonings. However, many of her case studies -- like Peters and Barbara -- reported no health problems.
The FDA scientist -- now retired and living in the Seattle area -- still retains her interest in bioluminescence.
"It is just fascinating to study," she said in an interview this week. "But people who see their seafood glowing should not think they're crazy nor that the aliens have landed. There are reasons backed by solid science."
She believes the problems at the Seattle stores probably were the result of cross-contamination. Cooking the product kills the luminescent bacteria and pathogens.
"Boiling the shrimp would have killed the P. phosphoreum, so the contamination probably happened after cooking," she said. "Somewhere, either in the grocery that sold the product or the plant where the cooked shrimp were packed, contamination from uncooked seafood had to get on the shrimp. This could present a problem."
The shrimp from the two stores were supplied by Ocean Beauty Seafood.
"We've spoken to the folks at Thriftway and QFC and are addressing their concerns," said Jim Yonkers, director of corporate quality assurance for the Seattle-based seafood company, the largest in the Pacific Northwest.
"We're going back to the eastern Canadian company that supplied the shrimp to us to discuss the procedures that they use. That's only common sense."
By ANDREW SCHNEIDER
P-I SENIOR CORRESPONDENT