For almost a year now, an elite team of health professionals and researchers have been meeting regularly to discuss the topic of seal oil. This elite group, called the Seal Oil Task Force, is chaired by Melissa Chlupach with NANA Management Services who wants to serve patients in Alaska’s Tribal Health System the foods they want. The “holy grail” of which is seal oil, but it is a prohibited food item in the Alaska Food Code due to the threat of clostridium botulinum toxin. We know our state consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for rates of foodborne botulism and we know that most of these cases are associated with eating traditionally-prepared Alaska Native foods, including seal oil.
Each year, many gallons of seal oil are traditionally processed, traded and consumed in homes throughout rural Alaska. It has been this way since time immemorial. It is safe to say that more safe and nutritious traditionally processed seal oil is made and consumed, than is tainted or unsafe seal oil. There is a safe way to make seal oil and we are on a quest to prove it.
Maniilaq Association is developing a project through the Seal Oil Task Force which has been code named the Maniilaq Seal Oil Project or MSOP. We’ve teamed up with the Kodiak Marine Science Center, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Wisconsin, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kotzebue IRA, and NANA Management Services to study seal harvests and seal oil processing with a food safety lens. We want to develop an ADEC approved hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plan for processing seal oil which retains some traditional techniques. At Maniilaq Association, we want to be able to provide the elders in our long-term care center the seal oil they want and need. The elders in our facility are living legends and they’ve earned the right to eat safe seal oil anytime they want (Check out the recent Associated Press story here).
Some of the activities we’re planning for MSOP include:
- Sampling harvested seals and processed seal oil for the presence of clostridium botulinum spores and toxins through the University of Wisconsin [2016-2017]
- Developing HACCP plans for making seal oil from bearded seal, ringed seal and spotted seal 
- Evaluating the traditional process for making bearded seal oil with black meat 
- Hosting a Traditional Foods / Seal Oil Symposium in Kotzebue, Alaska 
- Hiring an AmeriCorps VISTA to assist Maniilaq Association and the Seal Oil Task Force with traditional foods activities 
- Sharing information [Ongoing]
MSOP builds off of the traditional foods momentum generated over the past two years involving many of the same motivated individuals that have presented at the AEHA Annual Conference. Through this work we are using environmental health science as a tool to promote traditional food safety, healthy living, and reinforcing Alaska Native cultural values. You too can join this effort by contacting Melissa Chlupach (Melissa.Chlupach@nmsusa.com) and enlisting in the Seal Oil Task Force or by joining the Traditional Foods Listserv.
Article contributed by Chris Dankmeyer, AEHA President
Val Kriel. (2016). Via Associated Press.