Alaska nursing home seeks to make safer seal oil for residents

My botulism fears have been well detailed. I don’t mess with it; paralysis and the long term effects are enough to convince me to take risk management steps like avoiding risky foods.

Like seal oil.

A 2014 botulism outbreak linked to seal oil led to over 25 illnesses in Alaska. There was another outbreak in 1997. There have been others too.garlic-scapes-2

But the food has a lot of cultural importance – and a according to the Daily Mail, nursing home is working with bot experts to process the oil, often home made and donated, safely.

An Alaskan Native organization asked for permission to serve its nursing home residents nutrient-rich seal oil.

Regulators are working with the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association to possibly serve the seal oil, a traditional staple that’s banned in public settings because of its high risk for botulism if not properly processed.

Lorinda Lhotka with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency would grant an exemption to the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association if it can demonstrate a safe method for rendering the oil, which can taste like a heavy, if slightly fishy, olive oil when fresh.

It’s used like a dipping sauce in Native households across the state.

‘We know that it’s a really healthy food, but there’s also some hazards associated with it if it’s not prepared safely,’ said Lhotka, a member of an unofficial task force looking at ways to make seal oil legally available.

Alaska consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for rates of foodborne botulism. The numbers vary widely, but generally range between zero and as many as 15 people affected each year.

Deaths, however, are rare, occurring in Alaska only twice in the last 10 years, according to Louisa Castrodale, a state epidemiologist.

Maniilaq, a regional tribal health care nonprofit based in Kotzebue, hopes it can add seal oil to the list of traditional foods that can legally be donated to facilities such as its Kotzebue nursing home, which serves elderly Inupiat Eskimos.

For its seal oil quest, Maniilaq has teamed up with University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers, as well as University of Wisconsin botulism expert Eric Johnson, to assess the oil rendering process at its new Kotzebue processing plant for traditional foods.



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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.