More food uses for seaweed sparks food safety research

Harvested seaweed, neither seafood nor a vegetable, is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but only as a spice.  

“Like any other food, harvested seaweed can have some levels of pathogenic bacteria,” reports Maine Public Radio.

 “But unlike other foods pulled from the ocean, there is little federal guidance about reducing food safety risks for seaweed once it’s out of the water.”

“That’s because the long blades of kelp that sea farmers grow off the rocky coast of Maine don’t fall neatly into any single category for food safety.” 

FDA considers seaweed in small dried quantities as a spice, not a food.

But Maine Public Radio, in partnership with the Bangor Daily News, says, “that doesn’t reflect the evolution of seaweed in Maine, where kelp and other species are now commonly used in a plethora of culinary applications, including noodles, salads, and kimchi.”

 Maine researchers are working to provide local harvesters with new data on safely handling seaweed following recent food safety tests on the aquatic plants.

For the past two years, scientists at the University of New England have been studying how different storage and drying methods cut down on pathogens. 

MPR says the researchers hope their findings can help develop proper regulations to protect eaters without overburdening the growing industry.

Professors Carrie Byron and Kristin Burkholder and graduate student Jessica Vorse loaded rockweed and kelp with common pathogens to levels much higher than found naturally. 

Then they tested the seaweed after air drying, freeze-drying, and varying storage temperatures.

The team found a sharp decline in the pathogens in both drying methods and that colder storage temperatures resulted in less macrobiotic activity.

This work gives FDA and the Maine seaweed industry hard data to make informed decisions about food safety and seaweed.

The lack of specific regulations is not yet an issue with Maine’s small number of harvesters and processors. Seaweed is not yet associated with any foodborne illness. Researchers know it is only a matter of time. They want to avoid reactionary regulations that don’t make sense for the aquatic plants.

“My concern is this industry is growing super fast,” Byron told MPR. “All it takes is one mistake from one actor to burden the whole industry.”

UNE ‘s work is some of the first looking into food safety practices for seaweed.

“We’re not doing this work because there is an inherent risk of contamination with seaweed products,” Burkholder said. “Seaweed is safe, and we’re doing this work to keep it safe.”

Creating well-fitting and overarching regulations for seaweed will be a long, arduous task.

But there are concerns that officials may take the easy route out as the industry grows and just clump seaweed with shellfish regulations. While they both fit under the big umbrella of aquaculture, they interact with their environment in different ways.

For instance, seaweed isn’t a filter-feeder like oysters. So waters that are contaminated for shellfish may not be harmful to seaweed.

“We need this data to allow us to make actual data-driven guidelines for the seaweed industry,” Burkholder said. “We wanted to do this because maybe seaweed shouldn’t be treated like shellfish.”

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