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EU researchers tout 'enormous' strides towards 'safer' seafood

Commercial introduction of new contaminant screening tool potentially on the table.

EU-funded researchers created a database and screening tools to monitor the levels of contaminants in seafood and their effects on consumer health. Coupled with rapid screening tools, the work promises to "greatly improve" the food safety of fish, shellfish and molluscs on European dinner tables.

Commercial application of the screening tools is potentially on the table, the European Commission's Horizon 2020 announced.

'Non-regulated' and until now unmonitored contaminants are the focus of a team of researchers working in the EU-funded ECsafeSEAFOOD project, a pan-European collaborative effort to improve seafood safety involving 18 universities, research institutes and private enterprises in 10 countries.

Launched in 2013, the project is currently at a crucial stage and promising outputs are beginning to emerge, said Antonio Marques, project coordinator and researcher in the Division of Aquaculture and Seafood Upgrading of the Instituto Portugues do Mar e da Atmosfera in Lisbon.

“The advances made so far are enormous,” he said.

The team established a detailed monitoring program to assess contaminant levels in seafood throughout Europe, collecting samples from key fishing grounds and fish farms, as well as testing seafood on sale to consumers.

The database shows the levels of contaminants present in different types of seafood from different sources, and correlates this data with consumption patterns and food preparation techniques. This allows the researchers to develop a "probabilistic tool" to indicate the risk to consumers of exposure to different contaminants and infer the potential health risks.

The database will also form the backbone of a web-based tool for food safety authorities, industry professionals and consumers to gauge the safety and quality of different seafood products, and will help regulators and the fisheries industry establish more effective methods to mitigate the risk of contamination.

To accelerate the process of testing samples, the research team is developing new detection tools – using biosensors – to enable the fast quantification of the most relevant non-regulated contaminants at reduced cost.

“Developed by some of the project’s [small and medium-sized] enterprise partners, the screening tools are likely to be deployed commercially in the future in the fisheries industry and potentially other agricultural sectors,” Marques said.

Through closer monitoring of seafood contaminants, the researchers aim to give consumers greater confidence about the quality and safety of the food on their dinner tables – potentially providing an important promotional and financial boost to the fishing industry as a whole.

To gauge consumer opinions, the researchers conducted a survey of nearly 3 000 people in Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain to better understand consumer preferences and concerns on seafood safety. The survey results will contribute to defining what kind of information should be disseminated in order to reduce public health risks from seafood consumption, Marques said.

“According to European data, among all food items, the second highest number of alerts in Europe occurred with seafood, representing almost 16 percent of all alerts in 2013, while environmental contaminants represented more than 30 percent of all European alerts."

Better monitoring of seafood contaminants and increased accessibility to high-quality data on potential risk factors as a result of ECsafeSEAFOOD should greatly reduce those figures in future years, the researchers believe.

“Toxicological data can assure both the seafood industry and final consumers that seafood is safe for consumption, fostering further expansion of the sector."

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