GAINESVILLE---To combat the rise in food-borne illnesses, University ofFlorida scientists are the first in the nation to begin testing highlyaccurate electronic noses that sniff out fishy seafood before it gets tothe consumer.
"The electronic nose gives us nearly 100 percent accuracy and could bejust what we need to help seafood inspectors handle their growingworkload," said Murat Balaban, a food processing engineer with UF'sInstitute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. It could be a major stepforward in ensuring seafood quality if the federal government and theseafood industry accepts it.
"More than 70 percent of our seafood is now imported, but the number ofexperienced inspectors has not increased. We need some help," he said.
The electronic devices have a big advantage over conventional testingmethods in detecting pathogens that could cause disease, Balaban'scolleague Maurice Marshall said. "In just a few minutes, we can tell whatis good product and what is bad," said Marshall, a professor of seafoodchemistry. "You don't have to do bacteria counts, which can take days."
The noses, now widely used in Europe, are computerized tabletop units with sensors that detect odor molecules. They are also being used to findbacteria in wounds, inspect toxic waste sites and check the quality of wineand coffee.
Balaban and graduate student Diego Luzuriaga programmed or "trained" anose to mimic judgments that inspectors make. In 43 tests on good and badshrimp last month, the electronic nose was in perfect agreement with Foodand Drug Administration inspectors who visited the UF campus.
We call the odor of some spoiled shrimp wet dog, but my wet dog may smell different than someone else's wet dog, and that is where this device can help us most," he said.
"Once an electronic nose has learned enough seafood odors, it can be more objective than human inspectors," Balaban said. "And we don't have to worryabout it catching a cold or retiring.
Walter Staruskiewicz, research chemist with FDA's seafood inspectionprogram, said his agency has only three seafood inspectors with more than20 years experience at the "top national level", and they are all nearingretirement.
"We never have close to enough inspectors, and that's why I'm glad UF is doing this work," he said.
However, more testing is needed before electronic noses can replacefederal seafood inspectors, Staruskiewicz said. "When I make a findingagainst a company, I have to be ready to go to trial."
Balaban said federal inspectors should find it easy to defend electronicnoses as the databases of various seafood odors become standardized. "Onceyou've trained a nose, it's objective and highly reliable.
Although federal inspections may not use the electronic noses right away,Balaban said seafood companies could use them to decide which catches toreject and when to process seafood instead of selling it fresh.
British manufacturers Neotronics Scientific Inc. and Aromascan Inc. areassisting in the UF research on the electronic noses, which now cost about$40,000. Balaban expects the devices will become the standard forinspecting seafood when prices drop.
Research at UF’s Aquatic Food Products Laboratory includes tests on otherdevices to help seafood companies and grocery chains maintain quality. Theyinclude computerized units the size of a matchbox that record temperaturechanges during shipping and packets that change color when seafood gets toohot.
Balaban also is developing a digital camera system to replace visualinspection of seafood, now the second most popular line of defense againstspoilage.
"We're excited about cloning the eyes as well as the noses of inspectors, Balaban said. "We don't want to replace them, just help them do their job.
Materials provided by University Of Florida. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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