Alaska Sea Grant helps solve seal oil safety concerns

For many rural coastal communities in Alaska, seal oil is a mainstay of traditional diets. It is used as a dipping sauce and to flavor stews, and as an ingredient in traditional medicines. 

strips of seal fat in bucket
Strips of seal blubber in a plastic bucket. After about a week, the seal oil will separate from the solids.

To render seal oil, the blubber is cut into strips or chunks and placed in skin, plastic, or glass containers until the oil separates and floats to the top. The blubber may also be stirred over low heat to achieve separation. 

In many Inuit and Yupik households, seal oil is served at every meal. Due to concerns about food safety, however, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) could not approve serving it at the Maniilaq Association’s elder care facility in Kotzebue. A hazards-based risk assessment (HACCP) plan was needed to ensure safety in the preparation process, so the Maniilaq Association reached out to Alaska Sea Grant for technical assistance.

Alaska Sea Grant’s Chris Sannito, together with Dr. Brian Himelbloom, partnered with botulism experts from the University of Wisconsin–Madison to identify and develop a process for food service to safely prepare seal oil for human consumption. Care was taken in designing the process to preserve the tradition of cold rendering.

Closeup of knife trimming seal fat from a carcass
Trimming seal fat from a carcass. Removing any meat and skin ensures the purest oil and best flavor.

The team tested acidity and temperature in the traditional rendering process and eventually landed on the right levels needed to prevent the botulinum toxin. After more than four years of work, a HACCP plan was developed, and the process was approved by ADEC in January 2021.  

“Traditional foods are critical to the health and well-being of Alaska’s Native people,” said Sannito. “It was very rewarding to contribute to  this project, to help minimize safety risks for the Maniilaq Association, and to give Elders in Kotzebue access to their favorite foods outside of their own homes.” 

Alaska Sea Grant offers consultations, classes and workshops on seafood safety, quality control, product development, business and marketing operations and leadership training through its Alaska Seafood School and other seafood technology and safety programs based at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center.

Read more about Alaska Sea Grant’s work with the Maniilaq Association in an Associated Press story on the topic.