Inspecting Seafood—A Highly Trained Nose Knows

Steve Wilson, Seafood Inspection Chief Quality Officer

Do you know how we inspect seafood? How about the most common types of seafood fraud? We sat down with NOAA Fisheries Steve Wilson, Seafood Inspection Chief Quality Officer, to learn how his staff ensures seafood is safe and high-quality. Read on to find out why a highly trained nose knows.

What should consumers know about seafood inspection and safety?

First of all, seafood is one of the safest protein sources to eat. NOAA Fisheries' Seafood Inspection Program makes sure that the seafood we inspect is high quality. Folks hear that only 2 percent of seafood is inspected in the United States. We have 150 highly trained inspectors in NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program who inspect one-fifth of all the seafood consumed in the United States. NOAA Fisheries inspects seafood for quality assurance, not just safety, and uses labels called Grade A standards. We hope that once people become more aware of inspection standards, they will ask for the inspection mark on seafood products wherever they buy seafood.

How do you inspect seafood?

We test the color, smell, taste, and weight and rely heavily on sensory analysis through the nose and taste buds. We're starting to incorporate computer technology like thermal couples to measure temperature, moisture analysis scales, and color meters to detect color fraud. A device called an electronic nose identifies the chemicals in a piece of seafood, but it must be recalibrated each time. The human nose does not need this recalibration and this is one reason it is still the best tool in our inspectors' toolbox. While we're making great strides, these advances need to support the human element of inspection.

Is an inspector's nose different from the average person?

Seafood inspector sniffs seafood

Our inspectors have highly trained noses that they use at seafood plants and training facilities as well as retail markets, vessels, and fish ports. Specialized knowledge comes in handy, too. Take tuna for instance—it doesn't always smell like rotten fish when it goes bad, it may smell fruity. Another example is from the Gulf oil spill; the average person's nose could detect oil at levels approximately 10ppm in fish. Our experienced inspectors could detect levels of 1ppm or 0.5ppm on a consistent basis. In other words, our inspectors have very sensitive olfactory senses.

When buying seafood, what should we be on the look out for?

Familiarize yourself with nutritional labels. Know what the label should say so you can detect inconsistencies.

Check for clarity. Make sure the eyes are clear and bulging, the flesh is firm, and the gills are still pink.

Examine the flesh. If the fish has been filleted, check for gaping flesh from the bone (this will happen when fish is not fresh).

Notice the scent. The fish should smell like seawater and should not have a fishy scent at all.

Consider the packaging. Examine the packaging to see if there is too much frost or ice in the package to ensure you're buying the product you intend to buy and not excess water.

After the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima plant shut-down, how can we know seafood is safe from radiation?

Seafood inspectors inspect tuna

There is no problem with radiation in seafood; seawater is actually one of the tools used to counteract radiation. The scientists in Fukushima effectively dealt with the situation and did everything correctly. We have read some studies on trace amounts, but they are still so far below significant levels and we have not seen any elevated levels. Since April 2011, the Food and Drug Administration has been monitoring radiation levels in fish and seafood sold in the United States. Their careful screening at the U.S. borders is complemented by radiation screening of shipments. They've performed more than 30,000 field examinations—not one has turned up with radiation levels posing a public health concern.

What's your favorite seafood to eat?

I love Atlantic cod. That really began when I was in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the cod and haddock are incredible.