HOUMA, La. (AP) - Where Gulf of Mexico seafood comes from and how it's harvested are becoming less of a mystery.
 
A new seafood tracking program has begun in response to the 2010 BP oil spill that scared many people about eating Gulf seafood.
 
"We received money from Congress to re-establish the perception of the industry," said Alex Miller, commission economic program coordinator. "We hired a number of contractors to put this program in place."
 
Gulf Seafood Trace uses software created after the spill by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission. Local seafood processors can register to use it.
 
Ten participants tested the system before it was launched at the Boston seafood show in March. Since then, 45 companies between the Florida Keys and Texas have enrolled, with millions of pounds of seafood already being tracked.
 
"The electronic visibility ... gives confidence to market area and restaurants," Miller said. "We want to empower the seafood industry with these tools. We want to help them overcome these perceptions and differentiate their product."
 
Imports are among the industry's biggest challenges. Processors enrolled in the program guarantee their seafood is straight out of the Gulf.
 
Other benefits are to help processors better manage their risk, improve efficiency and in some cases put them in a better position to improve sales and prices.
 
"That deals with everything. There are a variety of food safety challenges that would allow them to have a better grip of the situation. If there was a recall, they would know where it came from. They wouldn't have to throw out a huge amount of product but a small amount. If they get audited, they can show their records in a more efficient manner," Miller said.
 
Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, owns one of three Houma companies that have joined. The others are Jensen Tuna and Nichole's Seafood.
 
Voisin said he worked on an advisory panel for the program. "To participate was just natural,"  he said.
 
Voisin works in the oyster industry and is very familiar with tracking his product. Since oysters are considered one of the most high-risk seafoods, they are the most monitored in the world. Oyster traceability has been around for 80 to 90 years, Voisin said.
 
"It's helped us to refine some of our processes, and that will mean greater sales and opportunities."
 
Motivatit Seafood is getting quick response code tags made. Starting in March, when the final program report is due, restaurants that buy oysters from Motivatit will be able to scan the code and learn exactly where the product came from and how it was harvested.
 
"It can go down all the way to a picture of the harvested place when they scan the QR code. If a restaurant handled the product, they could put the QR code on the menu, and the customer can see it that way as well," Voisin said.
 
Processors who enroll at gulfseafoodtrace.org will be informed of the training session they need to complete.
 
"They will be taught how to use the technology to provide this electronic traceability to the marketplace," Miller said.
 
Participants can use the system to send information to a buyer, store or restaurant.
 
"So the information keeps moving down the pipeline. We call it downstream," Miller said.
 
Just like any other startup program, there have been some glitches but nothing major. One of the main challenges Gulf Seafood Trace faces, Miller said, is having people overcome the old way of thinking, moving from paper to electronics.
 
"Change is sometimes difficult, and it's nothing against the businesses. It just requires a little bit of work. It's a new way of thinking. It gets you to a better place in the long run, and that's sort of the idea," he said.
 
Only 20 to 25 percent of seafood processors use this program, with the majority being in Louisiana. The program will continue to be offered at no cost until 2014. After that, those who are enrolled will have to pay certain fees to contractors.
 
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Information from: The Courier, http://www.houmatoday.com

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