NEW ORLEANS–Federal officials plan to keep petroleum-tainted fish off of our plates by using two proven methods: advanced chemical testing and their sense of smell.

“The sensory tests tend to be more sensitive than the chemical,” Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for the seafood inspection program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Food Safety News in an interview yesterday.

“The nose is very sensitive,” says Wilson, who explains that normally a combination of chemical and sensory testing–which includes tasting the samples–is used to determine whether seafood is fit for human consumption.

For the chemical analysis, NOAA will send samples of seafood to expert labs in Seattle, Washington–labs which have experience testing for petroleum in seafood.

Samples will also be sent to NOAA’s state-of-the-art sensory testing lab at Gloucestor, Massachusetts, which Wilson notes gives experts ideal conditions for testing. “It has positive air flow, it’s designed specifically for us to be able to perform sensory analysis.”

“There’s no point in being on the dock,” said Wilson. “It’s not that kind of sensory. You need to check the shell of the crab, you need to check the meat, you need to check various locations that might be contaminated.”

With the oil spill nowhere near contained, and 6,800 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico closed to any kind of fishing, it remains unclear when NOAA’s seafood inspection program will begin testing fish for contamination.

Before the agency begins its program, two things have to happen. First, the spill has to be

contained, and second, the ocean water “where the seafood is living and

growing and breathing” has to clear a quality test.

“There’s no point in testing product that’s swimming around in oil,” he said.