06 June 2014

Antonio Marques – Improving seafood safety

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New research is underway that aims to improve detection of seafood contaminants that could be used in prevention and to assess their impact on public health.

Seafood sometimes poses health risks to consumers. Unfortunately, these are not very well defined. What is more, the risks associated with non-regulated contaminants, responsible for such health hazards, are not all well understood. Now, the EU-funded project, ECsafeSEAFOOD, due to be completed in 2017, has evaluated the impact of such contaminants on public health. Project coordinator Antonio Marques, senior researcher at the division of aquaculture and seafood improvement at IPMA, the Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute, in Lisbon, Portugal, talks to youris.com about the project’s aims to assess the threat from various seafood contaminants and develop improved detection tools to help protect people against such contaminants.

Do you believe that consumers are aware of all the contaminants in their seafood?
No, the majority of consumers are not aware of such contaminants. Especially, they do not know about new emerging and non-regulated contaminants that are now being monitored at the European level within the project.  For example, these are micro plastics and associated chemicals, emerging toxins from harmful algal blooms and endocrine disruptors.  These could also be pharmaceutical and personal care products as well as toxic metals. We want to assess their potential threat to consumers.

How will consumers benefit from the outcome of such studies?
The project will benefit consumers in different ways. We will provide data about emerging contaminants to enable more realistic and accurate risk assessment. This will help authorities at national and European level to develop mitigation and dissemination strategies. We also want to develop mitigation measures for contaminants that are present in high levels in seafood.  For example, removal of contaminated edible portions of seafood, phytoremediation and online seafood consumer guiding tool. We also want to understand how the transfer of the most relevant contaminants occurs between the environment and seafood. And how climate changes might affect contaminant accumulation in seafood.

What’s wrong with the current contaminant detection tools?
Consumers are not sufficiently safe, as the current detection tools are time consuming and expensive. Therefore, authorities and industry do not possess fast screening and cheap tools that enable them to immediately react once contaminated seafood is spotted. What is more, toxicological tools are not yet implemented for some emerging contaminants. And therefore precautionary measures are not undertaken by authorities to make sure that consumers are on the safe side.

Algal blooms are one of your worries. How do they affect seafood?
Environmental conditions, such as seawater temperature, are the main causes for algal blooms in Europe. Algal blooms are only problematic when they are toxic to seafood or consumers. There are two types of toxic algal blooms in Europe. Those from temperate regions whose periodicity of occurrence has been increasing in the last decades; they are having a strong economic impact on bivalve producers in particular. And, second, those from tropical regions that are spreading to temperate regions.  These affect different marine organisms including fish and shellfish.

Such changes that have been occurring in Europe in the last decades are potentially related to climate change. Some toxic algal blooms can strongly affect seafood, ultimately threatening their survival. By contrast, other toxic algal blooms are only toxic to consumers. They cannot be eaten, at least, until the animals release the toxins. This is because such toxins are thermally resistant and are not destroyed with culinary preparation.  

How else are environmental contaminants affected?
Some cooking procedures enable higher levels of water release from seafood, like grilling.  Other procedures, however, lead to lower levels of water release, such as boiling or frying.  And some contaminants are released with the water during the cooking procedure. What is more, some contaminants are accumulated in seafood fat content. Eliminating part of the fat between the skin and meat can certainly enable the decrease of fat-soluble contaminants. It should be taken into account that the cooking procedure also affects the nutritional value of seafood. The most conservative approach to release contaminants and maintain the nutritional value is to steam seafood. The project will address this important topic that has been so far poorly studied. 

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