17th December

Safe shellfish: the aim of Ireland’s biotoxin monitoring programme

Micheal Ó Cinneide and Terry McMahon, Marine Institute

The Irish shellfish sector has met many challenges and has continued to grow in the past decade. Total production in the shellfish sector in 2003 amounted to 44,678 tonnes, valued at €41.8m. The ongoing growth in exports of molluscan shellfish, which in 2003 were worth €39m, is evidence that our scientific excellence and the food safety work are achieving results in the marketplace.

Ongoing development of is dependent on ensuring that only product which is of high quality and is safe to eat is placed on the market.

 

Consumer safety needs: 
 

  1. a monitoring system that measures the levels of both naturally-occurring biotoxins and contaminants of either natural or human origin, e.g. trace metals, chlorinated hydrocarbons in the shellfish, and
  2. a management and regulatory system that uses the results provided by the monitoring programmes and which can respond rapidly and appropriately to changing environmental circumstances.

Since 2000, all stakeholders, including the DCMNR, State agencies such as BIM, FSAI and the Marine Institute, and the industry have worked in close partnership. An efficient and effective biotoxin monitoring and management system is now in place, which is internationally recognised as being the best system in the northern hemisphere. This recognition is exemplified by the request for expert technical advice from Marine Institute staff on the establishment of similar programmes in Namibia and South Africa. 

For its part in the biotoxin monitoring programme, the Marine Institute has:

  1. invested more than €600,000 in state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and equipment in its Dublin and Galway facilities, which will be brought together at its new location in Oranmore in early 2006
  2. put in place a comprehensive quality assurance system and has already achieved accreditation, or is awaiting official confirmation of accreditation for all its laboratory procedures to the international ISO 17025 standard. The Marine Institute would be the first laboratory in Europe to be awarded accreditation for phytoplankton analysis to this international standard.
  3. developed a web-based data handling and reporting system, which provides for rapid reporting of results on the web as well as by e-mail, FAX and SMS text messaging to mobile phones
  4. compiled and made available comprehensive data on biotoxin concentrations, bioassay result and levels of toxic phytoplankton species as input to the proactive management cell decisions
  5. increased the number of staff in its Shellfish Safety Unit from 4 to 22
  6. built up expertise in shellfish microbiology and pathogens
  7. met producers, researchers and regulators each year for a workshop to review progress in research and monitoring
  8. played a key role internationally on the continuing development of chemical based methods of toxin analysis with a view to the ultimate replacement of animal assays

The developments in the biotoxin monitoring programme were noted during the recent inspection by the EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) who stated in the draft report of the mission that ‘In view of the investment and continuing improvement in the area of marine biotoxins (Directive 91/492/EEC) the situation can be regarded in general as satisfactory for the monitoring of marine biotoxins and the implementation of Directive 91/492/EEC, including most of the relevant NRL activities.’

The Marine Institute also carries out an annual programme of monitoring of trace metal and chlorinated levels in shellfish. The results of this programme, which are available on the web at www.marine.ie/chem , have consistently shown that the levels of these contaminants are well below the strictest values applied internationally.
The articles by Tim Coakley (Bantry Bay mussel grower) and in the profile of Connemara Seafoods (Westport based processor) in the Issue I of Inshore Ireland echo this progress in shellfish safety: “Things are a hell of a lot better than they were in this sector a few years ago. We have become a major player at last”.

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