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Sniffing Out Oil-Tainted Seafood

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Sniffing Out Oil-Tainted Seafood


Sniffing Out Oil-Tainted Seafood

Sniffing Out Oil-Tainted Seafood

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Melissa Block talks to University of Florida professor Steve Otwell about the school's new program to help train inspectors on how to use their noses to sniff out oil-contaminated seafood.


Seafood inspectors around the Gulf are checking for spoilage - fish or shellfish contaminated by oil from the BP spill. And one tool theyll have at their disposal is as plain as the nose on their face. In fact, it is the nose on their face.

The University of Florida is teaming up with the FDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service to train inspectors to detect oil contamination by smell.

Steve Otwell is a professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida, and he's helping lead the training. He says these teams and their noses will be working on the frontline of the spill.

Professor STEVE OTWELL (Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida): You'd like to get the product right out of the water as soon as possible. We dont want people to have to have gone to the expense and time of harvest if they're going to be harvesting product that they have to return. So there's going to be sampling regimes set up at each state.

BLOCK: And as you're doing the training, what are you teaching folks to sniff for, in particular related to this oil spill? What are the distinctive characteristics of this oil?

Prof. OTWELL: Every oil spill has some distinctive different aromas. And so we had to actually prepare samples from the oil spill in this region. In some cases, we had to actually spike samples to prepare them for reference so that we would understand how to detect it at various levels.

Now, most people can remember when they went back to pick up their car after a mechanic worked on it, and the aroma they got at that garage. Or you may go in your own personal garage and pick up and old oily rag out of a drawer and remember that aroma. These are all petroleum-type aromas and they're very powerful and very potent - thats why the nose is so helpful in this situation.

BLOCK: What about contamination that might not be detectable by smell but is still in there?

Prof. OTWELL: You can get down to much more sensitive detection with analytical instrumentation. But the analytical techniques are very involved and very complicated and very expensive. We'd like to initially screen products through a series of screening with the nose, narrow the workload down before we bring in the instrumentation.

BLOCK: Aha, so if it's heavily contaminated, the nose would pick it up. It would be junked right away.

Mr. OTWELL: (Unintelligible) going to the next level. Then all of a sudden, you say well, shucks, this smells pretty good. I think it's okay. You'd want to go to the next level of sensitive noses, if you will, the so-called experts. And if they say, well, it appears okay to me, and they look at this product both raw as well as heated to make sure they get all the volatiles and all the aromas that come off, and if they say it's okay, then it's ready to be looked at with the more involved instrumentation.

BLOCK: What do you think it takes to be a really great nose doing this kind of work?

Mr. OTWELL: Well, first of all, some of it's a natural gift, and some of it's just leading a good lifestyle: you're not a chronic smoker or something that may have compromised some of your olfaction capability. But not only does that come with your ability of your nose, but it also comes with experience. The more you do it, the better you get.

BLOCK: Well Steve Otwell, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. OTWELL: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Steve Otwell is a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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