Meet the Extension Specialist

by Rona Kobell

Maryland Sea Grant Extension Agent Cathy Liu with a wet storage system used to control vibrio. Photo, Daniel Pendick / MDSG
Maryland Sea Grant Extension Agent Cathy Liu with a wet storage system used to control vibrio. Photo, Daniel Pendick / MDSG

Five years ago, Maryland Sea Grant’s Extension Program hired Cathy Liu as its seafood technology specialist. And ever since, she has been helping seafood processors maintain the safety of domestic seafood through training and certification updates to minimize the risks of contamination. 

Liu grew up in an inland city in China’s Sichuan Province. She studied soil science and agrochemistry in college in her home country, then went on to receive her doctorate in food science in Japan. Eventually the multilingual Liu found herself living halfway around the world, focusing her research on crabs and fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

“Even though I was in an inland city, we had freshwater fish,” Liu said.

In Chinese culture, the fish is considered a lucky symbol. The Mandarin word for fish — yu — shares a similar pronunciation with another character that means surplus or abundance. Due to the homophony, the Chinese tend to equate fish with auspicious traits. During the Lunar New Year, the most important cultural festival, fish is an indispensable dish at the table, as celebrants gather to welcome a year of abundance.

Liu feels lucky to be working in the Chesapeake Bay — where she’s on a first-name basis with many seafood processors. Every year, dozens of them attend her trainings to learn about hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) to ensure that seafood is kept at the proper temperature during processing and is stored properly. She also runs the Maryland Crabmeat Quality Assurance Program, providing support and oversight. Nearly two-thirds of Maryland processors participate in the program.

Her current research involves the development of effective post-harvest processes to reduce vibrio pathogens in shellfish. Food-borne illnesses from these bacteria, which live in marine environments and thrive in warm temperatures, can cause turmoil in an entire market. Almost every state now has a vibrio control plan, including Maryland. This work builds on Liu’s previous research combining ultra-low flash-freezing at -95.5ºC for 12 minutes, followed by storage at -21ºC for five months, which can reduce vibrio in half-shell oysters to nondetectable levels.

Liu earned a master’s degree in food science from the Southwest Agricultural University in Chongqing, China, in 1992, and a Ph.D. in food science from Ehime University in Matsuyama, Japan, in 2000. She directed the Laboratory of Marine Bioresources Utilization at the Shanghai Ocean University from 2004 to 2013, after which she came to the United States — first as a visiting professor at the FDA’s Gulf Coast Seafood Lab in Alabama and then at Oregon State University Seafood Research and Education Center.

She works out of two offices — at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in College Park and at the Center for Food Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, where she conducts collaborative research.

Liu may not always be near the water, but fish are never far from her mind — or her plate. It’s all about yu, that Chinese character with the dual message: “If you have fish,” she said, “then you are also rich.”

kobell@mdsg.umd.edu

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