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Originally published January 7, 2014 at 11:37 AM | Page modified January 8, 2014 at 1:06 PM

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Geoducks tested, safe to eat, state health officials say

China banned geoducks imported from Washington state after finding high levels of arsenic.

Seattle Times business reporter

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After testing the arsenic levels in geoduck clams, the Washington Department of Health has found the geoduck clams in the area outside Federal Way are safe for human consumption.

Chinese authorities detected arsenic in a November shipment of geoducks from Washington and on Dec. 3 banned all imports of bivalve shellfish, such as clams and oysters, harvested in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Northern California.

The state Department of Health reported Tuesday that it conducted its own tests on the edible portions of 36 geoducks from the Redondo Tract, finding the levels of inorganic arsenic well below China’s standard of 0.5 part per million.

Dave McBride, a toxicologist for the state Department of Health, said Washington did have one test result above China’s standard when a whole-animal test was conducted, including the inedible portion — the skin.

“Of the portions that were tested, the skin tissue had the highest concentration. But people do not generally eat the skin,” said McBride. “But, if you look at the whole samples, and average those, it falls below Chinese standard.”

The health department began collecting geoducks from the Redondo Tract in Poverty Bay on Dec. 26. Testing inorganic arsenic levels in geoducks is not as simple as testing the levels in water, McBride said. The clam had to be processed, then ground up with liquid nitrogen to produce a fine powder for testing.

“It is a very labor-intensive process to get the geoduck into a form that can then be analyzed,” McBride said.

The tests were done at the public health lab in Shoreline. An additional 18 geoducks were sent to a private lab in Bothell, for a comparison. The private lab showed inorganic arsenic levels even lower than those at the public lab, McBride said.

The average whole-animal inorganic arsenic level for the 36 geoducks that were broken into 12 composite tests at the public health lab, was 0.37 part per million. While the 18 geoducks that were broken into six composite tests at the private lab had an average inorganic arsenic level of 0.11 part per million, both tested well below China’s standard, McBride said.

While there are no federal safety standards for arsenic in shellfish, the state tested the levels in Poverty Bay in 2006.

Tim Church, director of communications for the state Department of Health, said that in all 24 sites tested at that time, arsenic levels were not a concern for human consumption.

The health department has sent both the 2006 results released in a 2007 study and the most recent arsenic level results to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Those reports have both been forwarded to China and the General Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, which is China’s version of the Food and Drug Administration, a NOAA spokeswoman said.

State and tribal officials closed the 135-acre Redondo Tract to geoduck harvesting Dec. 20, and the state has also removed the tract from the current contract harvest period for the state, which runs from Jan. 2 to March 28.

During the previous harvest period, which ran from Oct. 21 to Dec. 30, the state estimates a $1 million loss of revenue as a result of the import ban, because of unharvested pounds.

Tribal harvesters and geoduck farmers have seen a significant impact as well, and many divers were out of work over the holidays. Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, which was originally trying not to lay off any workers, has since laid off 14.

On Monday, Seattle Shellfish also temporarily laid off about a quarter of its staff.

Gov. Jay Inslee has sent letters to both NOAA and the Food and Drug Administration in support of the shellfish industry.

“I am pleased that [Monday’s] test results confirm the health of consuming geoduck harvested from the Poverty Bay region. I appreciate the diligence and hard work of all agencies involved,” he said in a written statement.

However, at this point, it is unknown if the Chinese will lift their ban.

“It is anyone’s guess right now what China will do with these results,” McBride said. “We hope that this resolves the issue.”

Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or On Twitter @coralgarnick

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