The nose knows: UF to help train experts in sniffing out oil spill-contaminated seafood

May 12, 2010 by Mickie Anderson

(PhysOrg.com) -- To keep consumers safe from seafood that could be tainted by the Gulf oil spill, regulatory officials will rely on an incredibly sophisticated, delicate tool: the human nose.

Next month, University of Florida researchers will help government inspectors learn to use their sense of smell to evaluate seafood products harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. The training is meant to keep consumers from eating seafood tainted with oil spilled in the water following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.

Seafood harvested in the Gulf may have ingested the water-soluble chemicals, making it dangerous for human consumption.

Scientific instruments can perform the same task but take much longer to get results, said University of Florida professor Steve Otwell, who has led UF’s professional seafood sensory school since it began in 1995. The instruments can only run about 20 to 30 samples in a week, and at a cost of $700 per sample, are expensive.

Those instruments rely on electronic recognition signals and can detect chemicals in much smaller concentrations, down to parts per billion. But the can quickly detect levels that are considered unhealthy — and when it comes to getting seafood from the ocean to a diner’s plate, the clock never stops ticking.

“Sensory analysis can be a very powerful tool,” said Otwell, a professor of food science and with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “And it can be recognized for regulatory purposes. But only if you are trained to do it and it’s proven that you have the ability to do it.”

For years, Otwell said, UF has taught government inspectors and food industry professionals to evaluate seafood for freshness and consumer appeal, so it made sense to have UF lead the contaminant-detection training.

In the last two weeks, UF officials have been freezing baseline samples of fresh, uncontaminated seafood to use in the training, expected to be held in mid-June on the Gainesville campus. UF will also help officials in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi set up similar training.

The and Drug Administration and Department of Commerce are the federal regulatory agencies that oversee seafood safety.

During the four-day training, which will be based on techniques learned from earlier such as the Exxon Valdez in 1989, a group of about 25 inspectors and regulators will learn protocol for handling seafood samples and examine different types and levels of contaminated seafood. They’ll be tested on their ability to sniff out polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — or PAHs — in fish, shrimp and crab, Otwell said.

And if history’s any guide, some of them won’t pass the smell test.

“You know from your own personal experience that some people can smell better than others,” he said. Some are gifted sniffers, he said, while others make lifestyle choices, such as smoking, that hinder their ability.

The training is an attempt to “educate and sharpen” a sense that’s naturally there, he said.

As evidence of the olfactory system’s power, Otwell points to things like just mowed grass, or spring flowers, and how a whiff of something can evoke memory.
For doubters, he offers this challenge: Hold your nose. Pop a slice of cheese in your mouth. Once you’re mid-chew, let yourself breathe normally.

“The difference is phenomenal,” he said. “The nose is a powerful instrument. If you don’t believe it, take the cheese test.”

Explore further: Healthy fractions of oats efficiently recovered

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Federal agencies say seafood safe

Dec 10, 2005

Federal officials and officials from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana say there is no reason to be concerned over eating Gulf states seafood.

FDA issued advisory to Gulf seafood firms

Feb 05, 2008

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory to seafood processors concerning recent illnesses linked to fish carrying the ciguatera toxin.

MIT warns of dumping seafood

Jun 21, 2006

In its latest outreach campaign, MIT Sea Grant has developed an educational pamphlet to encourage people not to release or dump live and fresh seafood and seafood waste into the wild.

Recommended for you

Water purification at the molecular level

4 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Fracking for oil and gas is a dirty business. The process uses millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand. Most of the contaminated water is trucked to treatment plants to be ...

Why plants don't get sunburn

Oct 29, 2014

Plants rely on sunlight to make their food, but they also need protection from its harmful rays, just like humans do. Recently, scientists discovered a group of molecules in plants that shields them from ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.