At the edge of a remote Alaskan peninsula, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, lies the city of Kotzebue. Snow-covered in winter and starless for weeks in summer, Kotzebue is home to roughly 3,300 people, most of whom are native Iñupiat Eskimos.
People there consume a diet rich in animals found in the region, including caribou, seal and whale. Following Native tradition, foods often are fermented or consumed raw.
But they sometimes are contaminated with one of the most poisonous known toxins: botulinum toxin, produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. In fact, Alaska has one of the highest rates of food-borne botulism in the U.S., most likely because of those traditional foods. Botulism can cause paralysis, respiratory failure and death, so traditional foods are not allowed to be served in state-run facilities like nursing homes.
A group called the Seal Oil Task Force, comprising Native organizations like the Maniilaq Association along with state government partners, has formed to try to change that. They want Native elders to continue enjoying foods they have known their whole lives.
Which is how CALS bacteriology professor Eric Johnson, one of the world’s foremost experts on Clostridium, came to find himself on a boat in Kotzebue last summer, traveling to a Native processing facility where seal oil is produced.
Seal oil is to many Alaska Natives what soy sauce is to some Asian cultures: a staple of their diets, Johnson explains. It is also especially prone to botulinum contamination. The task force contacted Johnson in 2015 to see if he could help.
“Many of the foods they absolutely cherish can result in botulism,” Johnson says. “They want to integrate food safety into traditional Native foods.”
The catch is that any new processing methods cannot alter the final product or significantly stray from traditional production. For instance, heating the oil would kill the bacteria, but it also changes the taste.
Johnson is working with the task force to determine how the bacteria are contaminating traditional food products. This has involved rendering seal oil back in his campus lab, testing for toxin as the blubber stripped from hunted seals emulsifies at ambient temperature into the nutrient-rich, yellow-hued delicacy.
In Kotzebue, seal oil is produced by cutting fresh blubber into pieces, placing it in a covered vat, and stirring—twice a day—until the fat eventually gives way to oil.
Johnson has a theory that Clostridium, found naturally in soil, may colonize minuscule pockets of water present in the fat as it breaks down. He wants to develop a method to prevent the bacteria from contaminating the oil, or a method to neutralize the toxin.
In the process, Johnson is learning more about Alaska Native culture and believes his work could have even greater reach. “It could have an impact on cultures elsewhere,” Johnson says.