Gulf seafood must pass the smell test

Commercial fishing continues in the Gulf as the oil slick continues to spread. But how do we know the fish we eat is safe? It appears the nose knows as seafood inspectors learn how to sniff out tainted product from oysters to shrimp and fish.
By Ylan Q. Mui and David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

PASCAGOULA, MISS. -- Expert sniffer Steve Wilson lifted the cover off a Pyrex bowl and fanned the aroma of the raw red snapper sitting inside it toward him on a recent afternoon at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lab here. He quickly replaced the cover and stepped back, letting the scent register for a few seconds.

Conclusion: No oil.

Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's seafood inspection program, oversees a panel of seven olfactory experts from the agency and the Food and Drug Administration who have been tasked with ensuring that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat. The team also will help determine when the thousands of square miles of federal waters that have been closed to commercial fishing since the BP oil spill nearly three months ago can be reopened.

This puts the fate of the seafood industry in their hands. Or, rather, their noses.

"It's a very specialized skill set," Wilson said. He later added, "There are people who just can't smell."

Members of the team -- whose identities NOAA has kept secret, for fear they could become targets if waters do not reopen quickly, allowing fishing to resume -- do not work alone. Seafood that passes the smell test also is subjected to chemical analysis at a NOAA lab in Seattle for traces of the hydrocarbons that make up the crude oil gushing into the gulf.

But those tests can take at least three to five days to complete, while so-called "expert sensory assessors" can sniff through as many as 36 samples each day and detect contaminants down to one part per million. All seven have to sniff and rate each sample. Wilson said the sniffers are accurate about 80 percent of the time.

NOAA said it is focusing most of its tests on seafood outside closed waters to ensure that it remains safe for consumption. No tainted seafood has been found in those areas, agency officials said.

"So far, it's adequate," said Walt Dickhoff, who runs the chemical testing team in Seattle. "We're just monitoring it to be certain."

About 34 percent of the gulf has been closed to commercial fishing by federal order. States control waters nearer to shore, and Louisiana has shut down 76 percent of the 2.1 million acres of water where oysters are harvested, according to state officials.

Officials with the state's Department of Health and Hospitals said the closures are their first line of defense against having contaminated seafood enter the market, but some fishermen -- many of whom have been out of work for more than two months -- have criticized the efforts as too aggressive.

In Houma, La., Mike Voisin, owner of the Motivatit oyster harvesting and processing business, said he understands the restrictions, but "I'm on the side of don't like it." Of his company's 400,000 acres of oyster farms, only 3,000 remain open, he said.

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