Jun 7, 2010 6:11 PM by Melissa Canone
PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - William Mahan bends over a bowl of raw
shrimp and inhales deeply, using his left hand to wave the scent up
toward his nose. Deep breath. Exhale. Repeat. He clears his palate
with a bowl of freshly cut watermelon before moving on to raw
oysters. Deep breath. Exhale. Repeat.
He's one of about 40 inspectors trained recently at a federal
fisheries lab in Pascagoula, Miss., to sniff out seafood tainted by
oil in the Gulf of Mexico and make sure the product reaching
consumers is safe to eat.
But with thousands of fishermen bringing in catch at countless
docks across the four-state region, the task of inspectors, both
sniffers and others, is daunting. It's certainly not fail-safe.
The first line of defense began with closing a third of federal
waters to fishing and hundreds more square-miles of state waters.
Now comes the nose.
Mahan is an agricultural extension director with the University
of Florida based in Apalachicola, where some of the world's most
famous oysters are culled.
"We're being trained to detect different levels of taint, which
in this case is oil," Mahan said last week. "We started out
sniffing different samples of oil to sort of train our noses and
minds to recognize it."
So what does an oily fish smell like?
"Well, it has an oil odor to it," Mahan said. "Everyone has a
nose they bring to it ... Everybody's nose works differently. For
me, the oysters are a little more challenging."
The human nose has been used for centuries to aid in making
wine, butter and cheese, and is a highly efficient and trustworthy
tool, said Brian Gorman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, which is hosting the courses along with the
nonprofit Battle Creek, Mich.-based International Food Protection
"Properly trained noses are really remarkable organs," Gorman
Even so, inspectors can't be everywhere. The trained sniffers
will be deployed where needed, when suspicions are raised about
seafood being illegally culled from closed waters, or even to test
fish from open waters. No agency has yet reported finding or
stopping any tainted seafood from getting to market.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also
been sampling seafood both in closed and open waters, and sending
it off for chemical testing, with more than 600 fish and shrimp
processed to date.
State and local inspectors are fanning out across the region to
docks, seafood processors and restaurants, some now armed with
specially trained noses. NOAA currently has 55 inspectors at its
Mississippi lab, with another 55 in training.
"The message we're delivering is simple: The seafood in your
grocery store or local restaurant is safe to eat, and that goes for
seafood harvested from the Gulf," said Kevin Griffis of the U.S.
Department of Commerce.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has a role with its
own inspectors, though the agency said it only has "several
seafood specialists" currently in the Gulf area.
"We are ramping up inspections at facilities in the region,"
said FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott, adding that inspectors would be
present at seafood processors throughout the Gulf states.
She said the agency has deployed a mobile lab to Florida that is
testing samples of fish caught in waters not yet believed to be
impacted by oil, because fish don't stay in one place.
Gulf fishermen are already hurting from the perception that
their product is tainted, said Ewell Smith, executive director of
the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
"Some people also just think we're shut down altogether,"
Smith said, adding that higher prices for shrimp are causing
smaller businesses to cancel orders simply because they can't
Smith said no oily seafood will ever make it to market.
"You're going to smell it, you're going to see it. It would be
almost impossible for it to make it to market," he said.
Fishermen say they can't sell a tainted product anyway, whether
it is inspected or not. Earlier in the week, fishermen brought in
thousands of pounds of shrimp caught off Louisiana to the docks at
Pass Christian, Miss., where the catch was offloaded and sold to
processors and customers on site. No inspectors were present.
"No oil, not even a drop," said fishermen Mike Nguyen, who
brought in 3,000 pounds of shrimp on Wednesday.
"When the shrimp get oily, they die and they stink," he said.
"See, they're alive."
Joe Jenkins owns Crystal Seas Seafood Company on the docks at
Pass Christian. He'll be buying thousands of pounds of shrimp.
"Here, we don't have inspectors on any level so we have to
inspect our own seafood products to make sure they're safe and
oil-free and good to eat," Jenkins said. "We're not going to have
inspectors everywhere. Everybody's got to do their own job ... to
make sure they don't have a problem with oily shrimp whatsoever."
Mississippi shrimper Richard Bosarge agreed, and said no one
wants to sell oily shrimp.
"If we catch oily shrimp, the nets are coming up," Bosarge
said shortly before heading out to sea.
He called the sniffers "ridiculous."
"They're going to smell it? No way," added Mike Triana, who
works for a Mississippi gas company along the coast. "How they
gonna know? I ain't eating any of it. I don't trust the nose."
Gerald Wojtala, director of the International Food Protection
Training Institute, acknowledged that nosing around seafood may
sound silly, but said it's a time-proven technique.
"The human nose has been used on a lot of (oil) spill
response," Wojtala said. "There are a lot of sophisticated tests,
but when you think about it, do you want to run a test that takes
seven days and costs thousands of dollars?
"This saves a lot of time and money," he added, "and it puts
more eyes and noses at different points in the system."
Still, Wojtala said, nothing is fail-safe. Even without an oil
spill, people sometimes get sick from tainted seafood, or suffer
illnesses from contamination in red meat such as E. coli.
"It's safe to say there is no 100-percent guarantee," he said.
"There's never a 100-percent guarantee. We can only be as safe as
we can be."