Special Reports

They ensure Gulf seafood remains safe to eat (with photo galleries)

MANATEE — There have been no reports of oil-tainted seafood from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and officials want to keep it that way.

Seafood sold in markets has been kept safe through the closure of more than 30 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Additional steps are planned to cope with the unprecedented disaster.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employ “sensory experts,” who insure seafood meets national standards. Highly-sensitive laboratory equipment also is used in conjunction with the experts’ more subjective conclusions to insure food safety and wholesomeness, officials said.

It’s likely some area residents will be attending classes at the University of Florida in Gainesville to learn to screen seafood for oil contamination at an elementary level, as a way of assisting the experts, a local official said Thursday.

“All the sensory experts get together and calibrate their senses to the compound they’re to detect — in this situation, it’s oil,” said Christine Patrick, a public affairs specialist for NOAA Fisheries of the highly-trained individuals who make their living using their superior olfactory and taste talents.

“So, it’s not something the sensory experts are normally looking for,” she said.

Closure of fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico due to the massive spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon well is designed to prevent any potentially-tainted seafood from making its way to market, said Patrick.

“You would know if there were any reports of tainted seafood — there have been none,” she said.

Still, officials are discussing the best way to reopen closed areas once oil is gone.

“Sensory experts” will do dockside sampling of seafood to confirm it is free of oil, Patrick said.

Once fishing grounds have been closed because of oil contamination, officials won’t reopen them until all the oil is gone.

The visual sheen and everything else must be gone. “They’re trying to finalize the criteria to reopen,” said Victor Garrido, coordinator of research program services for the University of Florida Aquatic Food Products Laboratory, in Gainesville.

“The draft right now calls for sensory examination of the product, and they’re targeting several species — oysters or shellfish, shrimp, some finfish,” he said Thursday.

“They’ll look at those species, do sensory evaluation by a group of experts; if they agree there are no detectable odors, they cook the product and smell it again. First raw; then, if it passes, cook it, and smell it again, then they eat it,” Garrido said.

“If everybody agrees there’s no oil flavors or oil taint in the seafood, then the product sample goes to a lab, and they do chemistry, and the chemists look for 7-10 compounds they call polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), because, supposedly, each source of crude has a specific profile for these PAHs. They have determined the ones that predominate in this particular spill, and they’ll be analyzing for that.”

Part of the plan is to also train others, called “screeners,” to do more cursory checks, Patrick and Garrido explained.

The trainee screeners, who will develop a lesser level of expertise than sensory experts, would help to reduce the experts’ workload, Patrick said.

“Things that ‘pass’ may go to the experts because they can detect a much smaller amount of oil in the fish,” Patrick said.

John Stevely, a Sea Grant extension agent in Palmetto, attended a recent briefing on the subject.

“People who participate in order to get certified must go through fairly rigorous training,” he said. “They also have to have a good sense of smell — there’s a process for determining if people have a good sense of smell.

“But it can be a very accurate and rapid way to screen product to make sure it’s OK,” Stevely said.

The Sea Grant program is a partnership between NOAA and UF for research and outreach, operated locally through Manatee and Sarasota county extension services.

A Florida food inspection chief, Dr. John Fruin, said that ordinarily, his inspectors only visit retail seafood outlets two or three times a year, with the exception of places exhibiting deficiencies.

But the procedure would change in the event of oil, said Fruin, chief of the bureau of food and meat inspection at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“There’s 300-some seafood processing places in the state, and I don’t know how many supermarkets, virtually all of them sell fish, and 1,700 or 1,800 groceries, a lot of which sell fish, fish markets, maybe 500 of those,” he said.

When something is oiled, it would be evaluated by state employees already trained as screeners, with more hopefully to be added depending on how bad the situation is, Fruin said.

“Hydrocarbon testing in fish is a new phenomenon that isn’t something any area of government has routinely done,” said Terry McElroy, the department’s director of communications. “We have a food lab, and have had for decades, that can look at fish and meat and determine bacteria, toxins, E.coli, salmonella, pesticide residue.

“We have a pretty savvy food lab Dr. Fruin and his colleagues do testing at — but not for oil,” McElroy said. “It’s never been an issue.

“FDA is developing all these methodologies.”

Patrick said officials are grappling with the problem of standards, but “if you can’t detect oil, smell or taste it, it’s likely to be below the standard. NOAA, the FDA and the states are in the process on agreeing what the standard should be.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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