From Astronauts to Aquaculture

How Sea Grant played a role in keeping seafood safe

by Rona Kobell

Fish on ice at the last seafood market in Jessup, Maryland. Photo, Rona Kobell
Fish on ice at the last seafood market in Jessup, Maryland. Photo, Rona Kobell

For several decades, the National Sea Grant network has been leading the nation’s efforts to keep seafood safe. Its food safety scientists have trained more than 45,000 seafood inspectors, plant managers, and quality-assurance personnel in the United States and dozens of other countries that sell American seafood. Regulators from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Centers for Disease Control have praised the efforts, noting that illnesses from seafood have dropped in recent years and crediting the network’s efforts for that change. 

This remarkable progress was made possible in part through a set of procedures known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points — HACCP for short. HACCP lays out steps that a processor must take to ensure that seafood is stored at the right temperature, that utensils are washed frequently, and that surfaces are sterilized at critical stages in the process to reduce the risk of contamination. HACCP training includes classroom time, with a manual developed by Sea Grant scientists and communicators, and plant time with equipment demonstrations and instruction. Many Sea Grant offices, including Maryland’s, have robust programs to help processors turn fresh seafood safely into consumer products.

What drove the whole effort, though, was a request that had nothing to do with fresh seafood. It had to do with astronauts.

Beyond HACCP

top view of crabs. Photo, Michael Fincham

Over the years, our seafood specialists have helped crab processors develop protocols for pasteurization, sterilization, freezing, and shipping. Find out more

In 1959, NASA teamed up with Pillsbury to make food that would prevent astronauts in zero-gravity conditions from getting stomach ailments. Thirteen years later, an outbreak of botulism in canned potato soup prompted the FDA to promulgate regulations for low-acid canned foods. Again, the government turned to Pillsbury. Scientists from the company presented their guidelines to the FDA: “Food Safety through the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System.” It was the first time that the acronym HACCP would be used.

Regulatory and science agencies continued to discuss the concept. A 1980 World Health Organization commission on food safety recommended the use of HACCP. In 1985, the National Academy of Sciences endorsed it over the practice of random food testing, another concept touted at the time. The 1993 E. coli outbreak at 73 Jack-in-the-Box restaurants killed four children and sickened hundreds, forcing urgent action across the meat industry. But for seafood, it wasn’t so much an outbreak as it was a shifting reliance on foreign- and farm-raised sources, said Steve Otwell, the former seafood safety specialist at Florida Sea Grant who helped start the program. As wild stocks became depleted, the supply and demand cycle for seafood endured historical changes, and with them came many unanswered questions.

“There was a new public concern about seafood safety, and it paralleled concerns about food safety,” Otwell said. “The federal government decided to do something about seafood safety, because the public was screaming for it and the politicians were screaming for it.”

Anticipating new regulations, Otwell and a few Sea Grant colleagues approached the Association of Food and Drug Officials of the Southern States to see if they had an interest in a partnership, with Sea Grant leading the training. That group included state and federal regulators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Armed with the association’s endorsement, Otwell said he and other Sea Grant food safety specialists received $80,000 from the National Sea Grant Office to develop a program, including funds for traveling to meetings and production of a training manual. The Sea Grant colleagues and the regulators formed the Seafood HACCP Alliance. HACCP training for the seafood industry became mandatory in 1997, with Sea Grant in the lead role.

Two other Sea Grant experts were involved, Doris Hicks of Delaware and Ron Kinnunen of Michigan. “We were familiar with the industry. Many of us did our master’s thesis or Ph.D. in the areas of seafood processing,” Hicks said. “We worked with FDA to develop the [HACCP] curriculum.”

Hicks and Otwell are retired — Kinnunen will retire this spring — but with their colleagues, they continue to refine the curriculum. They are updating HACCP materials for aquaculture, Otwell said, because it’s a growing source for seafood. Sea Grant specialists update HACCP procedures as the FDA updates its requirements. Training is voluntary, but following HACCP procedures is not — and FDA officers do come around to inspect.

Michigan Sea Grant Extension Agent Ron Kinnunen holding a whitefish on a trap-netting vessel in Lake Michigan.
Michigan Sea Grant Extension Agent Ron Kinnunen holding a whitefish on a trap-netting vessel in Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Ron Kinnunen

“My phone starts ringing” when FDA regulators visit commercial processors, said Kinnunen, who estimates he visits dozens of processors each year to help them comply with regulations. Sometimes the processors have questions that he can handle over the phone; other times, he schedules a return visit.

Recently, he said, regulators wanted to require fish processors to use expensive magnetometers, because they were concerned about metal fragments shedding during processing and potentially contaminating the fish. Kinnunen said he’d never seen metal fragments in fish. “We didn’t want metal detectors or magnetometers,” he said. “We developed some safety procedures [to address concerns].”

Last month, he said, a processor he works with was going to buy a sanitation device for a specialized whitefish product; Kinnunen recommended alternatively a three-basin sink and high pressure and high heat for optimal sanitation. “I walked out, and he said, ‘You just saved me $10,000,’ ” Kinnunen recalled.

Many in the industry say they appreciate the training. “Processors like us wouldn’t know what the handling process is [without HACCP training],” said Bill Cox, co-owner of the Honga Oyster Company on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “When you go through the training, you understand how important it is.” He learned, for example, how to ensure that oysters are refrigerated by 10 a.m. in the summer, and also how to keep a cooler clean, how to write a disaster plan, and how to follow it.

Dorothy Zimmerman, who came to Florida Sea Grant in 2000 and now works for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida (UF), is still the publications coordinator for the training manuals that Sea Grant colleagues created in the 1990s — and which they regularly update. They were by far the best selling of the many Sea Grant Extension publications, she said. “We still sell several thousand a year.” While UF stores the publications, Cornell University maintains the online training databases, and Virginia Tech still trains many seafood safety scientists, some of whom work for Sea Grant. It is a system, Zimmerman said, that relies on commitment and communication.

“They were way ahead of their time [on food safety],” Zimmerman said of the HACCP pioneers. “It was such a remarkable assemblage of Sea Grant talent.”

HACCP and seafood safety continue to be important to Sea Grant. Tom Rippen started the Maryland Seafood Quality Assurance Program to ensure that crab processors follow safety procedures, from the time the crabs leave the dock until the time they are shipped. Cathy Liu runs that program now.

Mike Ciaramella, New York’s Sea Grant specialist, joined the program three years ago, after finishing his Ph.D. in food science, with a concentration in aquaculture, at Mississippi State University. At 32, he wasn’t yet born when Kinnunen started at Michigan Sea Grant, or when Hicks ran her first consumer safety programs. Ciaramella is dealing with new seafood questions, and he and his colleagues are trying to come up with answers.

“People don’t know, really, what goes into the production of their seafood and how safe it really is,” Ciaramella said. “A lot of times, the Extension folks are the ones who get the questions about whether something is safe.”

kobell@mdsg.umd.edu

Our Extension seafood technology specialist is a member of the Seafood HACCP Alliance. Maryland Sea Grant provides HACCP training periodically throughout the year. Visit www.mdsg.umd.edu/seafood for more information.


BEYOND
HACCP

Maryland Sea Grant trains hundreds of seafood processors each year in safe handling of seafood. But the seafood specialists do much more. Over the years, they have helped crab processors develop protocols for pasteurization, sterilization, freezing, and shipping. Here are a few highlights:

Flash freezing of crab meat

Our Extension staff helped several crab processing companies across Maryland to take advantage of new flash freezing technology for preserving crabmeat. Freezers keep crabmeat fresh for months, allowing processors to sell their jumbo lump and other products through the winter — without sacrificing flavor. We helped these companies obtain grants to buy the freezers. We also conducted scientific testing to determine temperatures at which crabmeat should be cooled and for how long. To learn more about this project, read “Crab Processors Get High Tech,” a feature article in Chesapeake Quarterly, or visit our YouTube channel to watch “Flash Freezing Crab Meat.”

Maryland Crabmeat Quality Assurance Program (MCQAP)

Crabmeat processors who join the voluntary MCQAP agree to meet food safety standards and undergo safety inspections and testing. Companies receive an extra level of sanitary inspection and education through Maryland Sea Grant Extension. Participation in MCQAP helps processors remain competitive in a global market. Almost two thirds of Maryland crabmeat processors participate in this unique program. The economic benefit was estimated to be $728,000. For information, visit our website.

Crab soup and products

When Maryland’s Beach to Bay Seafood Company in Somerset County needed help figuring out how to produce and sell their famed crab soup commercially, Sea Grant Extension stepped up. Tom Rippen, a longtime Sea Grant specialist who retired and now consults with industry, developed protocols for pasteurizing and packaging the company’s recipe. Eventually, owner Richard Evanusa hopes to sell the soup to supermarkets. This spring, Evanusa said, the restaurant will have 10 products ready for market, including marinades, breading, and seasonings.

Networking Nationwide for Seafood Safety

From halibut in Alaska to oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, the Sea Grant network is invested in seafood safety, education, training, and communications. In some programs, Sea Grant Extension agents are interpreters, working with Vietnamese shrimpers in Louisiana or native Spanish speakers in Texas. In others, such as in Alaska and Michigan, agents work with members of tribal nations in remote areas. Aquaculture has recently become a focus for NOAA and the network to ensure that the same safety procedures for wild catch apply in ponds and nets. For more information, visit seagrant.noaa.gov/Our-Work/SFA.

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