Alaskan Indigenous group seeks to serve seal oil to nursing home clients

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Alaska regulators are working with an Alaskan Indigenous organization that wants to serve nutrient-rich seal oil to residents of its nursing homes, a traditional staple that is banned in public places due to its high risk botulism if not properly treated.

Lorinda Lhotka of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency would grant an exemption to the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association if it could demonstrate a safe method of making the oil, which can taste heavy olive oil and lightly fish when fresh. It is used as a dip in Native households across the state.

“We know it’s a really healthy food, but there are also risks associated with it if it’s not prepared safely,” said Lhotka, a member of an unofficial working group that is looking for ways to make seal oil legally available.

Alaska consistently ranks among the highest in the country for rates of foodborne botulism. The numbers vary widely but typically range from zero to up to 15 people affected each year. Deaths, however, are rare, occurring in Alaska only twice in the past 10 years, according to Louisa Castrodale, state epidemiologist.

Botulism can lead to temporary paralysis, with complications occurring if the respiratory muscles are affected, Castrodale said.

Maniilaq, a regional tribal health care nonprofit based in Kotzebue, hopes that seal oil can be added to the list of country foods that are legally donated to establishments such as its Kotzebue nursing home, which serves elderly Inupiats. The organization, like other tribal entities in the state, has also recently started incorporating other traditional foods into the menu.

For his quest for seal oil, Maniilaq partnered with researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Eric Johnson, botulism expert at the University of Wisconsin, to assess the process of oil extraction in its new processing plant in Kotzebue for traditional foods. Researchers will accompany an official from Maniilaq on a seal hunt in June, according to the administrator of the Val Kreil nursing home.

For now, Kreil is refraining from informing residents of the retirement home about the possibility of serving them marine mammal oil. But he joked that people would be so happy if Maniilaq got the green light that they would build a statue of him in town.

“It’s part of their diet,” Kreil said. “It’s like butter.”

Johnson said his role in Maniilaq’s efforts is to assess and, he hopes, justify the process involved in preparing seal oil for consumption.

Johnson said he was donating his expertise and federally approved lab, so he expects to ship samples to Wisconsin.

“It’s an interesting project,” he said. “I have been working on botulism for over 30 years so I am intrigued.”


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