Gulf Fish Cordoned Off For Seafood Sniffers' Inspection
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The massive oil spill is taking a toll on the people who live and work along the Gulf Coast. Mike Voisin and his family have an oyster business in Houma, Louisiana. He's also the past president of National Fisheries Institute.
Mr. MIKE VOISIN (Former President, National Fisheries Institute): There are some challenges. And I'm hoping, you know, last week, we had some openings of recreational fishing here in Louisiana. About 86 percent of Louisiana opened up. We're hoping soon we can get the commercial areas opened up, as well. And we still have about 50 percent of the commercial operations open. So with that, we still produce a lot of seafood products down here. And people need to be aware of that and they need to know that it's being tested.
HANSEN: That testing is being carried out by the U.S. government. Three federal agencies are working to make sure seafood coming from the Gulf Coast waters is safe. Teams of sniffers have been trained to root out tainted seafood.
And to help determine when waters closed to fishing can be reopened, NPR's Kathy Lohr has more.
KATHY LOHR: John Stein is head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's inspection program. He says with all the technology available, one of the most effective tools for sensing tainted seafood is still your nose.
Dr. JOHN STEIN (Deputy Science Director, Food Inspection Program, NOAA): And if you think about your ability to detect something in your refrigerator, it has an off odor, you can detect it at very, very low levels.
LOHR: State employees and professors, 56 of them who live along the Gulf Coast, have been called into sniffing duty. The FDA and NOAA conduct training for these people who are the first line of defense.
Professor LUCINA LAMPILA (AgCenter Research and Extension, Louisiana State University): I'm Lucina Lampila. I'm an associate professor with Louisiana State University. We are in a food processing lab here in the food science building.
LOHR: Lampila is one of the local sniffers and she set up a test for us. Covered glass casseroles sit on a table. Some contain corn, cucumbers and watermelon - these are just cleansing agents. Others hold raw shrimp. We open a lid and take what Lampila describes as small bunny sniffs.
Prof. LAMPILA: Really fresh seafood, the typical consumer shouldn't be able to smell much of anything.
LOHR: But when we test a bowl of shrimp that Lampila tainted with a small amount of ammonia, it's pungent and putrid.
Prof. LAMPILA: It smells bad and it's decomposition aroma of that. Eww. I didn't want to use the actual oil with the some of the volatile hydrocarbons that are in there just, you know, for safety purposes.
LOHR: These screeners don't have to determine what type of contamination is in the samples; whether that's oil, dispersant or something else. They only detect whether a sample is normal by testing it against a baseline of seafood caught before the spill.
Prof. LAMPILA: Believe me, I don't believe someone would go ahead and attempt to eat something that is tainted, because it is very aromatic and it's quite unpleasant.
LOHR: Here's how the testing process works. Seafood samples are collected from the boundaries of areas where fishing is closed. The newly trained sniffers take a whiff, and if the seafood passes muster, it goes to a panel of seven expert inspectors in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The experts can detect a tiny bit of contamination, one part per million. Newer state screeners, up to 10 parts per million - that's a single drop in a gallon of water.
Steve Wilson is NOAA's chief quality officer. He participated in the training.
Mr. STEVE WILSON (Chief Quality Officer, NOAA): You have known experts who are in the room who, in fact, can help direct the trainees towards this is sort of smell you should be getting. You might get it in your tongue. You might get it in the back of your nasal cavity. You might feel it right here.
LOHR: NOAA officials are on high alert to prevent any seafood containing oil from being caught and sold. In addition to using sniffers, the agency sends hundreds of samples to a lab in Seattle for chemical analysis. So far, just one sample came back tainted.
NOAA's Steve Wilson.
Mr. WILSON: Even though it may be safe to consume, if you smell oil, people won't want to buy fish and so the market gets depressed as well.
(Soundbite of conversations)
LOHR: One of the largest markets in Louisiana is Tony's Seafood in Baton Rouge, where Bill Pizzolato is one of the owners.
Mr. BILL PIZZOLATO (Co-Owner, Tony's Seafood): We have just have an assortment of different kind of fish: catfish, freshwater buffalo and goo. You know, different varieties of fish, our farm-raised fish, red fish out of Texas. Then we have shrimp...
LOHR: Blue crabs and crawfish are big right now, coming in fresh daily where they're inspected and sorted on a conveyor belt.
Pizzolato says he now has lots of frozen seafood on hand, fish caught in the months before the spill. His father started this market 50 years ago. And he says he knows the locals here, who have continually monitored the spill and the areas open for fishing.
Mr. PIZZOLATO: We try to be sure that our seafood is safe and knowing the source where it comes from, and just try to just take it and hopefully we'll get through all this and get by.
LOHR: People in Louisiana and along the Gulf are still buying and eating seafood. The problem is, with so much oil in the water, many across the country are wary of fish caught here. But NOAA officials say the seafood that gets to market is safe.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.