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One on One: Dr. Steve Otwell, Ph.D.

By James Wright
March 01, 2009

Perhaps nobody in the world knows more about the science of seafood than Dr. Steve Otwell, professor of seafood technology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. Otwell has been with the school for 30 years and has developed the nation's leading program for applied research and extension services addressing all aspects of seafood quality and safety, from production and processing to retail and foodservice.

Otwell's groundbreaking work has had global implications, particularly regarding shrimp farming. He says he can't think of a single shrimp-producing nation that hasn't taken part in his Shrimp School, an annual three-day educational seminar that includes lots of hands-on training.

What's more, Otwell says most every major U.S. food retailer and seafood processor has participated in one of his influential seafood workshops, including Gorton's, Beaver Street Fisheries, Tampa Maid, Contessa, Darden Restaurants, U.S. Foodservice, Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, Publix and Kroger's, to name a few.

"Most of the work we've done involves some commercial interest," says Otwell.

Otwell, 60, a Virginia native, received his Ph.D. in food science at North Carolina State University in 1978 and has served as the national coordinator for Seafood HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) Alliance for education and training since 1994. While he is proud of his and his students' accomplishments, he always keeps an eye on what the future may bring.

I spoke with Otwell in early January to find him still basking after his Florida Gators football team won its second national championship in three years.

WRIGHT: What is the Shrimp School?

OTWELL: It is the benchmark for training in the United States for processors and importers. We don't need to advertise it anymore; we have to limit attendance. The audience is the commercial industry and they come and learn the latest and greatest information. The program is 15 years old. Every major shrimp-processing operation in the world has participated at one time or another.

 

What's your latest success story?

[The University has], over the last two to three years, developed some historical methodologies to prevent illnesses from eating raw oysters. The post-harvest processing methods used around the Gulf of Mexico reduce bacteria. It's kept the industry alive and kept people safe. We now have validated the use of irradiation to kill bacteria on raw oysters. The process was approved by the FDA last month.

Oyster growing in the United States is the original aquaculture industry. Oysters are the canary of our coastline. If the water quality changes, you'll see it in the quality and safety of the oysters.

What's your most recent project?

The Aquaculture Species Affirmation Program. We call it ASAP, as in, the environment can't wait. Everyone's concerned about sustainability. ASAP is a way you can document responsible production of [farmed] species like shrimp. You can record and monitor your performance to assure it's done in a sustainable manner. With a clipboard mentality, you don't see what's happening on a daily basis. Certification and audits are good things, but it's like if I were to show you my house once a year to demonstrate it's clean. You have good and bad days.

 

How many university-level seafood technology programs exist?

Twenty years ago, there were seafood specialists in every coastal state. Over time those numbers dwindled. It's time to reinvest and rebuild this support to anticipate the historical changes in supply and related issues.

I just drafted a proposal to the U.S. government to build an academic alliance for food safety and international commerce. Universities in other countries will work with us. The first country we chose to work with is China. These countries are benefiting from our purchasing power. We're hoping to forge those relationships and benefit from their talent.

The period of nations is disappearing. We're sharing resources internationally so our allegiance has to be to the product and to the science - not strictly to the nation. The book "Cod" had the theme that cod helped develop the world. Once again, seafood will be a leader in rediscovering the world - we must learn to share resources.

 

What advancement in seafood 
technology has been the greatest?

The shift in the dependence of supply. Twenty years ago aquaculture was a hobby. Today it is the dominant source of supply henceforth. It's the most historical change in seafood supply since man was put on the earth. We've found a way to grow our food like we've never done before. We're thinking about our children. Will they be eating the catch of today? No, just as we're not eating the fish our fathers ate.

 

Is carbon monoxide treatment safe?

Absolutely. The use of CO to retain color in fish could be one of the biggest developments for food safety. If you look at the data for tuna and other scromboid-carrying species, the vast majority is from overseas. Longer distance means more temperature controls.

Frozen tuna that turns brown loses value. With CO you can freeze the product and prevent histamine poisoning. It's a huge safety intervention. But it can be abused. It's good for only frozen products and only for certain frozen products.

FDA would probably argue it's a quality issue. It's a safety issue. When it first came out I questioned it. But I saw how consumers preferred [red-colored tuna] and paid a higher price for it. Why deny that?

 

W hich safety issues are here to stay?

Bacteria in raw seafood, especially oysters; histamines and the fact that people could eat a scromboid-carrying species that may have been temperature abused; the concern for toxins in seafood from plankton like ciguatera, which could get larger as we source from around the world.

We know the problems and we know they're not large compared to other products. Seafood remains the safest source of muscle protein eaten on the face of the earth. Period. And ain't it nice that it's also good for you?

 

Is seafood safer than beef or poultry?

Yes. On a per-pound basis, if you simply take the consumer preference for certain raw seafood out of the equation, there are fewer illnesses from seafood. Just think about the comparison if consumers preferred raw beef and poultry.

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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