For many years, European food safety authorities and food processors have been required to closely monitor levels of dozens of different types of toxins in both wild and farmed seafood. The presence of pesticides, arsenic and heavy metals such as mercury and lead are all closely checked under current EU rules, but many other contaminants are not. Some are naturally occurring, such as biological toxins generated by algae blooms, but many are the result of manmade pollution – plastics that break down and are mistaken by fish for food, or pharmaceutical and cosmetic products that find their way into the food chain.
These ‘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, explains project coordinator Antonio Marques, a researcher in the Division of Aquaculture and Seafood Upgrading of the Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera in Lisbon. “The advances made so far are enormous,” he says.
Consumer health comes first
The team has established a detailed monitoring programme to assess contaminant levels in seafood throughout Europe, collecting samples from hot spot areas, such as key fishing grounds and fish farms, as well as testing seafood on sale to consumers.
The unique database not only shows the levels of contaminants present in different types of seafood from different sources, but 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.
In order to accelerate the process of testing samples, the ECsafeSEAFOOD team is developing new and innovative 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 says.
Moreover, 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 have 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, the project coordinator says.
“According to European data, among all food items, the second highest number of alerts in Europe occurred with seafood, representing almost 16% of all alerts in 2013, while environmental contaminants represented more than 30% of all European alerts,” Marques explains.
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.
“Toxicological data can assure both the seafood industry and final consumers that seafood is safe for consumption, fostering further expansion of the sector,” the project coordinator says.