From the lab where the fish was dissected, we were ushered into a similar looking testing room, where three lidded Pyrex bows sat on the counter – one with red snapper, one with shrimp and one with oysters.
Steven Wilson, chief of quality control for the Seafood Inspection Program, demonstrated the techniques that a sensor would use.
But first he noted a deviation from NOAA's strict testing protocol: Seafood sensors usually work behind white cardboard partitions to ensure they don't pick up any visual cues from other sniffers. He also added another restriction that wasn't mentioned in this earlier post on testing procedures: Sensors don't wear rings while sniffing lest they pick up the slightest whiff of metal.
Then he pried the lid on the first bowl up about 2 inches, and used his other hand to waft a bit of air toward his nose, almost like a wine taster sampling a fine Cabernet Sauvignon. He then replaced the lid and stepped back.
He wasn't rocked back on his heels by the odor. Wilson explained that at this point in the process, the sensor is supposed to apply a single descriptor to the smell, maybe something like "smells like rubber bands."
Such a smell would likely earn the fishery where that sample was caught a "remain closed" rating from an expert assessor, but if 70 percent of the sensory panel decided it was OK, it would be cooked and then submitted to a second smell test, Wilson explained. Then, if it again was approved by 70 percent of the panel, they would taste it.
If 70 percent gave a thumbs up, the sample would be tested for 14 toxic chemicals at the Seattle lab, after which the fishery would be cleared for reopening if the results were negative.
One interesting footnote: Like wine tasters, seafood sniffers need to clear their senses between samples. The NOAA experts use watermelon and cucumbers to clear their nasal passages and eat saltine crackers between tastings.
Be back shortly with a bit more on the real hotdogs of the seafood sensory world.