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A Conversation with National Seafood Inspection Lab’s New Division Chief, Dr. Jon Bell

Dr. Jon Bell is the division chief for the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries.

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October 29, 2014

The National Seafood Inspection Laboratory (NSIL) in Pascagoula, Mississippi, is a division of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries focused on two primary missions—promoting seafood product safety and quality and supporting seafood-related commerce and trade. NSIL has a broad range of expertise to support this mission, including:

NSIL addresses a number of issues critical to making sure that U.S. seafood is safe for consumers—species substitution, the use of banned chemicals and antibiotics, seafood contamination assessments, and the science that supports U.S. guidance for seafood consumption. Within NOAA, NSIL works in close coordination with NOAA Fisheries’ Seafood Inspection Program and scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center to support seafood safety monitoring and related efforts in the United States. In addition, NSIL works cooperatively with federal and state agencies, international governments/organizations, and private industry on seafood safety and trade-related issues.

In July 2014, Dr. Jon Bell joined the Office of Sustainable Fisheries as the new division chief for NSIL. We sat down with Dr. Bell to talk about his background and how NSIL supports the NOAA Fisheries mission to maintain productive and sustainable fisheries and safe sources of seafood.

NOAA Fisheries: What’s your background? Did you come from the food industry?

Dr. Jon Bell: Actually, I’ve had a rather wide-ranging career in seafood science and technology. This is the first time that I’ve worked in the federal government, aside from serving as a volunteer fisheries agent in the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa, after graduating from college. I have three degrees in food science from University of California, Davis and North Carolina State University and have worked a number of years in the canned tuna industry. I also served as a food science professor and seafood specialist for the Louisiana State University AgCenter and Louisiana SeaGrant. I feel fortunate to have worked on a variety of seafood technologies and best practices involving harvesting, processing, and laboratory analysis, as well as seafood safety and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) training.

NOAA Fisheries: What expertise and experience do you bring to NOAA Fisheries?

Dr. Jon Bell: While studying food science, my research focused on tuna and post-harvest handling effects of thermal processing on tuna quality and safety and muscle and quality changes. I continued to develop this expertise in the seafood industry while working on tuna purse seine vessels and off-shore canneries, as well as in corporate offices and management roles. I even got to work in the early days of tilapia aquaculture. As an extension professor in Louisiana, I worked with processors and harvesters to maintain and improve product quality and safety in shrimp, oyster, crawfish, crab, and local finfish fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries: What do you see as the key challenges to dealing with seafood in the United States? 

Dr. Jon Bell: Addressing and increasing seafood consumption in the United States is a key challenge. Seafood has often been known around the world as “brain food”, but these days American consumers are eating less seafood and missing out on important nutrients. Of all the countries in the developed world, young mothers in the United States have the lowest levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid important for brain growth and development, in their breast milk. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends increased seafood consumption for all U.S. citizens, misinformation or a lack of understanding can often lead consumers to eat less seafood.

A second issue, which is closely relevant to NSIL, is the challenge of devoting resources to the development of skilled seafood scientists. Individuals with this type of expertise are instrumental in the development of food safety outreach and training programs for seafood, such as the successful Seafood HACCP industry training program, which gives seafood processors the tools they need to meet food safety regulations. Retiring seafood specialists and scientists need to be replaced with equally capable staff. NOAA, through its Sea Grant College Programs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through land grant universities, may be a way to increase support for these developing seafood scientists to ensure we have the scientific support as we work to improve food safety under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

NOAA Fisheries: How does NSIL support the NOAA Fisheries mission?

Dr. Jon Bell: NSIL’s work supports the NOAA Fisheries missions of productive and sustainable fisheries and safe sources of seafood while also supporting the Department of Commerce’s mission of safe commerce for the seafood industry. For example, NSIL is developing a tool that can rapidly identify seafood species. Such a tool can help more accurately inform sustainable fisheries management, while also supporting initiatives to reduce seafood fraud.

NSIL also helps coordinate NOAA and other federal programs that monitor, trace, and document the import and trade of various highly migratory (such as swordfish and tunas) and other controlled species (such as Patagonian toothfish) to ensure sustainable management and legal commerce. Additionally, NSIL provides laboratory analysis and competent authority to meet the certification requirements of foreign countries for the export of U.S. fish meal and other fisheries products for animal feeds.

NOAA Fisheries: How does/can NSIL assist with ensuring safe supplies of seafood in the United States? 

Dr. Jon Bell: NSIL provides laboratory analyses and scientific expertise to NOAA Fisheries’ Seafood Inspection Program to validate the procedures and practices of the seafood safety inspection program, which is provided to seafood producers on a fee-for-service basis. Large seafood retailers and wholesalers often require processors to participate in this food safety control program. In addition, NSIL’s work and scientific evaluation of mercury and selenium levels in commercial seafood species helps to provide factual information to other federal agencies to inform industry and consumers on seafood safety and consumption advice.

NOAA Fisheries: What are some future goals for NSIL?

Dr. Jon Bell: After being on the job for just eight weeks, a main personal goal of mine is to develop a strategic plan for NSIL to help us best utilize our resources to support both NOAA Fisheries’ goals and the U.S. seafood industry – harvesters, processors, and consumers. We have a strong and unique blend of laboratory scientists, seafood specialists, and fisheries managers here at NSIL who can enhance our already strong programs, and we hope to develop strategies and actions to address key challenges facing the seafood industry. Check back with me in a year to see how we’re doing.