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Research Addresses Seafood Processing
By Rebekah Ray
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The harvesting and processing of seafood delicacies such as oysters is a major industry along the Gulf Coast, and research is underway to improve Mississippi's competitive edge by speeding up the processes and increase food safety.
Mississippi State University seafood scientist Dr. Custy Fernandes has received more than $250,000 in grants from the Gulf Coast Industry Initiative to evaluate food safety methods and mechanize oyster harvesting and processing.
"Three grants will enable us to evaluate consumer attitudes toward irradiated oysters, develop mechanized methods for harvesting seafood and develop mechanized methods to process oysters," Fernandes said.
In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Drug Administration published new regulations to improve the nation's seafood supply. Of several suggested methods for meeting these standards, one includes treating oysters with radiation.
Consumers have accepted irradiated foods such as spices, meats, fruits and vegetables. Irradiation improves safety and extends shelf life, but since irradiation alters sensory attributes, consumer attitudes and preferences to irradiated oysters need to be assessed.
"Over the last five years, there has been extensive economic growth on the Coast. While this has greatly benefitted the region, it has also plugged into the available workforce needed by the seafood industry to process and package seafood harvests," Fernandes said. "Seafood processors are looking for ways to continue harvesting and processing seafood faster and maintain its safety."
Seafood is very important in human diets and has been marketed as such because of high levels of essential nutrients including valuable polyunsaturated fatty acid and minerals. The more quickly that seafood is processed following harvest, the greater its safety.
"Processors currently use jam knives to shuck oysters, which is a time consuming and laborious process," Fernandes said. "This research will advance the industrial practices by shifting it to mechanization that will sustain and promote food safety."
Developing a mechanized process for shucking oysters could greatly help them remain competitive. Oyster processors also are looking at other methods to reduce their dependency on labor.
The Gulf of Mexico has a large reservoir of wild and farmed oysters. Oysters are generally harvested from mid-October to late May, with most of the harvesting along the Gulf Coast done manually by family operations. Harvesting processes currently used are time-consuming, laborious and costly.
Other oyster-producing areas of the country use mechanical equipment to harvest the bivalves from oyster reefs. Mississippi's commercial harvesters and processors could benefit from faster harvesting and processing methods of oysters. Mechanization would reduce the oyster cost per sack, give the state's oyster industry an economic edge over producer along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and sustain product safety.
Oyster processors are now experiencing economic hardships and are questioning how their industry will survive. Between 1975 to 1986, states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico harvested 18.8 million pounds of oysters and annual sales of raw oysters were $24 million. Between 1987 and 1996, yields were 17.2 million pounds, with annual sales at $38 million.
Because of their tendencies to harbor naturally occurring pathogens, oysters are perhaps the most regulated seafood. They are harvested from approved growing areas, which is mandated by state and federal requirements.
To ensure public health and consumption safety, every sack of oysters is tagged at each step, starting on the boats. Tags indicate the oyster sack originated from an approved area and reef open for harvesting, date harvested, state of harvesting, location and area, harvester, identification number and dealer name. The origin of oyster sack is color-coded by state.
Oysters are the only seafood tracked so extensively. These regulations have helped the industry because harvesters are taking correct precautions, which is helping Mississippi supply safe oysters, Fernandes said.
The Gulf Coast Industry Initiative is a competitive grant awarded by the National Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea Grant protects the Great Lakes and oceans, while NOAA, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, safeguards the environmental and economic well being of coastlines.
Contact: Dr. Custy Fernandes, (228) 388-4710