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Electronic Nose Knows When Seafood Is Safe

Chris Eversole

Murat Balaban (352) 392-4273
Diego Luzuri (352) 392-4239
Maurice Marshall (352) 392-1978 ext. 405

GAINESVILLE—To combat the rise in food-borne illnesses, University of Florida scientists are the first in the nation to begin testing highly accurate electronic noses that sniff out fishy seafood before it gets to the consumer.

“The electronic nose gives us nearly 100 percent accuracy and could be just what we need to help seafood inspectors handle their growing workload,” said Murat Balaban, a food processing engineer with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It could be a major step forward in ensuring seafood quality if the federal government and the seafood industry accepts it.

“More than 70 percent of our seafood is now imported, but the number of experienced inspectors has not increased. We need some help,” he said.

The electronic devices have a big advantage over conventional testing methods in detecting pathogens that could cause disease, Balaban’s colleague Maurice Marshall said. “In just a few minutes, we can tell what is good product and what is bad,” said Marshall, a professor of seafood chemistry. “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 find bacteria in wounds, inspect toxic waste sites and check the quality of wine and coffee.

Balaban and graduate student Diego Luzuriaga programmed or “trained a nose to mimic judgments that inspectors make. In 43 tests on good and bad shrimp last month, the electronic nose was in perfect agreement with Food and 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 worry about it catching a cold or retiring.”

Walter Staruskiewicz, research chemist with FDA’s seafood inspection program, said his agency has only three seafood inspectors with more than 20 years experience at the “top national level,” and they are all nearing retirement.

“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 replace federal seafood inspectors, Staruskiewicz said. “When I make a finding against a company, I have to be ready to go to trial.”

Balaban said federal inspectors should find it easy to defend electronic noses as the databases of various seafood odors become standardized. “Once you’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 to reject and when to process seafood instead of selling it fresh.

British manufacturers Neotronics Scientific Inc. and Aromascan Inc. are assisting in the UF research on the electronic noses, which now cost about $40,000. Balaban expects the devices will become the standard for inspecting seafood when prices drop.

Research at UF’s Aquatic Food Products Laboratory includes tests on other devices to help seafood companies and grocery chains maintain quality. They include computerized units the size of a matchbox that record temperature changes during shipping and packets that change color when seafood gets too hot.

Balaban also is developing a digital camera system to replace visual inspection of seafood, now the second most popular line of defense against spoilage.

“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.”