Susan Linn personally has sniffed more than 1,000 samples of seafood from the oil-tainted Gulf of Mexico, so when friends at church ask the Pascagoula, Miss., scientist whether they should eat the fish, she has one answer:
“If it’s taken from approved waters, then it has already been screened and the seafood is safe,” she said.
It’s a response that Linn, 48, a food technologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has given to government officials and local residents alike many times since the Deepwater Horizon started spewing oil in April.
She’s one of 30 “expert sensory assessors” tasked with smelling Gulf seafood samples to determine whether it’s safe to reopen local waters. Their opinions, paired with chemical tests , have been used to decide the fate of the commercial and recreational fisheries affected by the massive spill.
Only about 20 percent of Gulf economic zone waters, or some 48,114 square miles, remained closed as of Friday, far less than the 81,000 square miles shuttered at the peak of the spill. So far, only one sample out of 1,383 tested by experts sensors has been found to be tainted with oil, and chemical analyses have been far below danger levels, NOAA officials said.
Msnbc.com had a chance to talk to Linn, a rare sensory expert willing to speak publicly about her job. Here’s a summary of the conversation:
Q: You’re a graduate of Texas A&M University and a food technologist for the last 16 years with NOAA. Did you always want to be a fish sniffer?
A: It was simply an opportunity that came with the job, said Linn, who normally oversees labeling for NOAA's seafood inspection program and also monitors the fish products that go into the National School Lunch Program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A decade ago, NOAA officials needed people trained to test seafood in the event of an oil spill. Linn found that she had the necessary skills: namely a sensitive nose and the ability to identify and name certain smells.
“I notice smells quite a bit,” said Linn. “Perfumes, weird smells. I’ve kind of just always paid attention to it.”
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Q: This is your first oil spill, and it’s a historic one. Were you worried about your ability to identify petroleum smells accurately enough?
A: “At first I was nervous,” Linn said. “But we did a lot of training and retesting. It confirmed to me that I was able to determine consistently a very low level of contamination: 1 part per million and a half part per million, consistently.”
Q: How do you know when oil is present? What does it actually smell like?
A: “When you’re sniffing along, it’s just kind of like, ping!” she said, noting that testers also taste samples of cooked fish. “You think, ‘Oh, I get it.’ ”
Petroleum in fish smells like oil in other places, she said. “Usually it’s the used oil or motorboat oil smell, or the smell like when you’re driving down the street and it just rained, that old pavement and oil smell,” she added.
Q: Critics have charged that simply smelling fish is not enough, and that neither sensory tests nor chemical tests administered by the government will detect certain contaminants, including heavy metals. How do you respond to that?
A: “There are some people who are not going to believe anything,” Linn said. “They just don’t understand the training and that it is quite precise and that it is a science. They’re thinking Jim Bob is going down and taking a whiff.”
Q: Are you eating Gulf seafood now? Are you cooking it for your family?
Grilled lemonfish is a family favorite, said Linn. The youngest of her three children, ages 25, 22 and 17, enjoys fishing for lemonfish, also known as cobia. The family also eats shrimp three or four times a month, she said.
“I usually sauté it in butter and garlic and serve it over linguine,” Linn said. “For fresh fish, we usually bake the fish.”
While she’s been glad to have access to Gulf seafood, Linn admits work as a sensory assessor has dulled her appetite.
“We eat a lot of seafood, but lately I have just had so much fish in my mouth, not that I think it’s bad or anything, I’m kind of tired of it,” she said.
Q: NOAA officials wouldn’t publicly identify you and other sensory experts without a Freedom of Information Act order. They said they were worried that you and other fish testers, especially those who live in Gulf Coast communities, might face hostility and even violence over your jobs. Were you worried about that?
A: “I was a little concerned at first because a lot of people know me and they know I work for NOAA,” she said. “At first I was a little concerned that if things went south, it could get ugly. I’m thankful that didn’t happen.”
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