« March 2009 Table of Contents
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
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
How many university-level seafood technology programs
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
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
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