ELLSWORTH — What is seaweed? From a food safety perspective, it isn’t quite clear.

If you ask the federal Food and Drug Administration, it’s neither a vegetable nor seafood, which leaves it in a bit of a regulatory void.

“It kind of falls through the cracks and all of their buckets that they have for classifying different types of food,” said Carrie Byron, an associate professor at the University of New England’s School of Marine and Environmental Programs. “And each of those classifications have different safety measures and rules and regulations around them and seaweed is just not well captured in their current system.”

Byron and her colleague Kristin Burkholder, an associate professor at UNE’s School of Biological Sciences, have embarked on a study looking at the food safety aspects of seaweed to address that gap in regulations.

The study comes at a time when the industry in Maine is growing. It was prompted by a UNE graduate student’s findings of low-level pathogens present on seaweed, like most other food harvested from the ocean. The discovery wasn’t a cause for alarm in itself, but it pushed Byron and Burkholder to research what can be done to keep levels low and food safety risks down.

“We really have to think about how the seaweed is stored, handled and processed after it’s harvested,” Burkholder said. “What can we do to make sure that the way that it’s handled in the process keeps the food safety risk low?”

The two, along with help from graduate student Jessica Vorse and undergrads Colleen Moody and Lyle Massoia, are looking at how both storage temperatures and different drying methods affect pathogen loads, with the goal of creating guidelines for handling and processing edible seaweed.

Byron was clear that there haven’t been any food safety issues in Maine associated with seaweed, which is something that should be celebrated. But the industry is still small, and if it continues to expand, the FDA will eventually get involved.

The researchers have consulted with members of the industry to help inform their experimental design so that the results that are produced can actually be applicable and helpful.

Byron and Burkholder also want to make sure that seaweed is properly classified. The only way that will happen is if there is data to help inform decisions, they said.

Byron feared that with the current lack of regulations, if a food safety issue ever did arise, there could be a reactionary imposition of overly strict rules that could cripple the industry.

In the absence of regulations for seaweed, some nearby states have clumped it together with shellfish.

“A lot of the early practices have been based around shellfish growing,” Byron said. But that doesn’t really work. Byron pointed to the difference in testing between the two. In the university’s earlier work, they found that you have to test the seaweed itself in order to find if pathogens are present. But testing for shellfish is done by taking water samples — a method that isn’t relevant for seaweed.

“These two organisms are completely different,” Byron said. “Seaweed is not filter-feeding out of the water. It makes no sense that you would subject seaweed to the same environmental and safety regulations that you have for shellfish.”

The study has been underway for about a year. Burkholder expected it would wrap up next summer with some industry guidance documents.

“This is really great timing for us, because we are getting in and getting this information right now as things are really starting to expand but not after things have gotten so huge,” she said. “We feel like we’re going to help provide the science so that regulations can be science-based and well-informed.”

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