Is Gulf Seafood Unsafe to Eat After Oil Spill?

Forget about high technology and sophisticated sensors. The first line of defense in the effort to protect the public from seafood contaminated by the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be the human nose.

Oil from the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig is already flooding into some of the most productive coastal areas in the world, threatening a wide range of seafood. No one knows yet how dangerous that might be to humans, but public officials charged with ensuring the safety of food products are already training regulators literally to sniff out chemicals that could pose a threat.

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"The human nose is a powerful instrument," said Steve Otwell, who leads the University of Florida's professional seafood sensory school. Otwell will help train about 25 persons from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the federal Food and Drug Administration on the Gainesville campus beginning in a few days.

Human sniffers have been used to detect tainted food for years, and although it may not be as precise as some high tech instruments, it's quick, it's cheap, and it works, Otwell said in a telephone interview.

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"You will have the purists, and the lawyers, and everyone else say we need to have a very sensitive chemical method to really determine what's there," he said. "And that's absolutely true. But the amount of time, the lack of such instrumentation, and the costs make it impractical to depend on that technology to scrutinize the variety of seafood and the variety of areas that's involved with this particular spill."

The instruments that are available are not effective for every potentially dangerous chemical, and it can take days -- and sometimes weeks -- to get results.

So Otwell, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the university's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is quite serious about the role human noses will play in determining whether the bounty from the gulf remains safe.

"It is a science and the human nose can indeed detect levels that can provide us with a safety level, but the nose has to be trained. And some noses are better than others," he said.

Normal Noses Can Be Trained to Sniff Out Suspect Foods

But that doesn't mean he's searching for gifted noses. "Normal people have the capability to do this," he said. "This is not some super human who's in the nose Olympics."

Shortly after the spill occurred Otwell and his colleagues began collecting seafood from the gulf to generate base line data of what untainted food should smell like. They will add samples that have been exposed to the gulf spill, as well as samples that have been "spiked" with contaminants, providing references to guide the sniffers.

Since some people are better smellers than others, any suspected food products will likely require approval by a series of well-trained noses.

If a product flunks a sniff test, it will then be "bumped up to the next level and that's when you do chemical analysis," Otwell said. And some testers will probably have to try a few bites before the product can be cleared.

This is likely to become a very controversial issue in the weeks ahead, because some decisions -- like whether to close or reopen a fishery -- will have to be made quickly, perhaps even before chemical analysis can be completed.

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