Story by Alistair Gardiner, originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, republished with permission.
KODIAK — Seafood processor workers from throughout the state gathered in Kodiak last week for a five-day class titled: Seafood Processing and Quality Control. The class, which was held at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, focused on the latest ways to ensure that fish is processed in a way that ensures a high-quality product that is safe to eat.
The class was facilitated by Alaska Sea Grant and taught by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Chris Sannito, as well as a few guest lecturers. It cost each participant $480 to take part. This was the third time the biennial class has been held.
“We mix it up and try to stay relevant with what some of the newest topics are in the industry, as far as quality control and food safety hazards,” Sannito said.
This year, the class garnered nine participants from different regions and companies from throughout Alaska. The week-long course featured sessions on nearly every aspect of quality control and food safety, including topics such as how to take pH measurements and conduct microbial testing.
“In different sessions, we talk in detail about microbial quality and microbial safety,” Sannito said. “We demonstrated a couple of rapid test kits, where you could build your own inhouse QC lab, in which you could screen your own products.”
Sannito explained that the rapid food safety test kits allow the user to check for pathogens. These, he explained, are one of a number of new pieces of technology that give seafood processors more ability to do their own testing.
“It used to be that you needed a really sophisticated microbial lab to do some of that,” he said. “Now, with these new test kits, it’s almost like a pregnancy test kit, where it’s very easy to do.”
The microbial rapid test kits weren’t the only new technology that that the class was introduced to.
“There’s a device out there that’s being tested in the industry. It’s a hand-held device that people are starting to use more and more often,” Sannito said. “It measures impedance on a fish. Post-mortem, the electrical conductivity of a fish changes as it ages. This is a tool that measures the freshness of a fish. That’s one thing that we went over here.”
While food safety was a big part of class, methods to ensure a high-quality product were also on the curriculum.
“A lot of it is product quality. How to ice fish, how to freeze fish — what happens when you freeze fish,” said Sannito, adding that food quality practices begin right from the moment that the fish leave the ocean. “We talked about onboard handling, as far as best practices for fishermen, so they can advise fishermen on the catch that’s coming in.”
Sannito said that, because the class is made up of people from throughout the state, the sessions cover all different species of fish, from troll-caught salmon to trawl-caught fisheries.
“We try to cover everything, so these people might be exposed to things that might not necessary happen in their area, but at least they’ll know about it,” he said.
Guest lecturers for the class included University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor Brian Himelbloom, who conducted sessions on microbiology, and Brandi Holmdahl, a processing “industry veteran.”
“It’s a wide range of topics,” said Sannito, pointing to one session that exclusively focused on water quality. “Some of the plants are on private water systems. When you’re in remote Alaska, you’re not, like, tapped into the City of Kodiak. So you’ve got to take water safety into your own hands … because water is the primary food-contact fluid.”
“For example, we did coliform testing,” he continued. “It’s a very widespread water safety indicator and we let them go out and sample water from local streams and then we sampled toilet water. And we had four of the six samples come out positive. It just means that some of the surface water out here — you know, we’ve got deer, we’ve got bears, we’ve got mammals pooping on the ground — and those coliform bacteria get into the water.”
Of the nine participants in this year’s class, some work for larger processing firms, while others come from smaller plants that are just starting out.
Diane Wiese came from Cordova to take the class. She works as the at 60° North Seafoods, an independent processor owned by her son John Derek Wiese and a fellow fisherman named Rich Wheeler. According to Wiese, the company started its first season in May of this year.
Wiese is the product developer for the firm and will be in charge of quality control, which is why she took the class.
“I need to know all this stuff to make sure that our product is as safe as we can possibly make it,” she said. “The class was great. I wanted to learn about different parasites you can find in food and how to contain that and test for it. I also do quality control, so I want to make sure our plant is very clean and Listeria-free and how we can test for that.”
But it’s all lab-tested, so we’re all good. But it would have been good to know all of this before.”
Wiese said that although the class did give her all the tools she needed to do food safety tests herself the products sold by 60° North Seafoods will always be sent to a lab first.
“They’re the professionals,” she said. “But it’s good to know that I can go test a drain or test tables for being clean. I am very confident that I can do all of that now.”
Another participant, Marisol Leal works for North Pacific Seafoods’ Sitka Sound Seafoods processing plant. Leal has been working in quality control at the plant for three years, and has just started as the plant’s quality assurance manager.
“My corporate manager thought this would be good since this is my first year as a manager and that I would be able to get more knowledge about what my role is,” she said. “I actually love it. I’ve really enjoyed this class. I’ve learned a lot and seen new things that I want to incorporate into our company.”
According to Sannito, although the class was smaller than it has been in the past, the group benefited from a more individualized approach and the flexibility to do more work in the pilot plant and take part in a number of field trips.
“I think we made the most of having a smaller group, in that we could do a lot of hands-on work,” Sannito said. “We also did a couple of projects in the pilot plant, too, to demonstrate some things. We made sockeye salmon sausage and we made jerky, which was pretty popular with the group.”
The purpose of the exercise was to put into practice some of the food safety lessons the class had been learning, but also, according to Sannito, to “build camaraderie.”
“It gives us a chance to work together and talk and go through all the fine points of how to fillet salmon and how to pin-bone salmon,” Sannito said. “We also went out and visited a couple of the plants and took them on a little tour of Kodiak.”
All participants receive a university-issued certificate of completion from doing the course, which Sannito said will hopefully “help them advance in their career.”