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Shellfish industries benefit from safety science

Region’s shellfish industries benefit from New Zealand food safety science

Many people find shellfish to be extremely tasty delicacies. Scallop and oyster seasons are awaited with watering mouths. New Zealand green-lipped mussels are consumed in tens of thousands every day across the world.

With New Zealand exports and domestic sales of shellfish worth $460 million a year (almost a third of the country’s total fishing income of $1.5 billion), and the industry worth many times that to all Asia and Pacific nations, ensuring consumer safety is paramount for both economic and health reasons.

One of the problems that has plagued consumers of shellfish for centuries is that of harmful algal blooms (HABs) which occur naturally in the sea and produce marine biotoxins.

Traditional testing around the world for the majority of the biotoxins has involved the use of laboratory mice, a method that is fraught with scientific validity and animal welfare issues.

Phil Busby, Programme Manager (Seafood) for the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), says using mice is a very inexact method.

“This because the mice can be affected by compounds other than biotoxins such as the chemicals used to extract the toxin from the shellfish. This produces a false positive result and means shellfish growing areas are closed unnecessarily. Of greater concern is the opposite response, when the mouse bioassay produces false negatives. For food safety, this risk, no matter how slim, is a major problem.

“To provide better food safety assurance, and to minimise the use of mice, New Zealand became the first country in the world to formally validate and approve new analytical methods for the detection of toxin levels in shellfish. The new methods provide greater confidence in the safety of the product and provide quicker turnaround times with the results.”

These new alternative detection methods and the standards used for confirming biotoxin levels, as well as practical methods of assaying for harmful algal species levels themselves, will be examined by more than 100 marine biotoxin experts gathering in Nelson, New Zealand for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) HABTech Workshop, 26-30 November 2003.

Most of the world’s foremost specialists will attend, with all keen to see how these new methods can be applied in the new approach to marine biotoxin detection.

“Food safety concerns, including the methods used to detect biotoxins, can be used as a form of technical barrier to trade,” says Phil Busby. “This affects shellfish farmers and exporters, as well as importers and consumers in the receiving countries. If there are robust, scientifically-based test methods that have been formally validated and approved, then trade between nations can be facilitated because the safety of consumers is assured, no matter where they live.”

For APEC member nations, this is important, because the health of their people and the freedom to fairly trade are high priorities.

The aim of the Workshop is to increase both awareness and technical capability for ensuring the marine biotoxin safety of seafood with an emphasis on new methods to detect the presence of marine biotoxins. It’s geared to laboratory personnel, test method research scientists, the shellfish industry and government regulators.

The main scientific programme features plenary sessions with invited speakers, including an address by Phil Busby on how New Zealand got to be a world leader in the development, validation and approval of new detection methods, followed by afternoon laboratory demonstration/training sessions that include poster displays.

“The presentations will provide important new information, and lead into the practical sessions. While developments in APEC countries are prominent, the situation in Europe will also be covered,” said Dr Michael A. Quilliam of the National Research Council of Canada’s Institute of Marine Biosciences.

During HABTech, dedicated laboratory areas will be set up to accommodate a range of assays and techniques. During the afternoon sessions, experts will be demonstrating some of the new techniques in their field. These demonstrations include:

New rapid assay kits suitable for use in remote locations;

Sophisticated instrumental technologies suitable for use in regulatory laboratories;

Sampling and detection methods for HABs;

Developments in reference materials, e.g. toxin standards.

A field trip to the centre of the nearby Marlborough Sounds mussel industry and a visit to a local shellfish processing factory are also planned.

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