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Jeff van de Riet: Building confidence in Canada's shellfish supply

picture - Jeff van de Riet

Jeff van de Riet is an ideas man.

"I tend to come up with big picture schemes for how to safeguard our country's food supply—developing and validating methods for implementation in the lab. It's about the most rewarding work I can think of."

Jeff is a chemist and Unit Manager at the CFIAs laboratory in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He's been the driving force behind some of the Agency's groundbreaking methods for testing shellfish for marine toxins and aquacultured products for veterinary drug residues.

Method development is demanding work. It involves in-depth literature searches of proven methods for various applications, plus extensive experience in chemical sleuthing. Jeff has been directly responsible for developing methods to test for dangerous residues of antibiotics in aquacultured products and lipophilic (or fat-soluble) toxins in shellfish, many of which have been shown to cause cancer.

Unique North American test

Jeff's method to test shellfish for lipophilic toxins is the only such test available in North America. In fact, Jeff's lab tests shellfish samples from as far away as Canada's West.

"Our work protects Canadian consumers from seafood products contaminated with harmful residues and toxins. It also has a profound impact on Canadian producers by getting them into international markets they couldn't access without these analyses."

Lifelong passion

Jeff studied Agricultural Chemistry at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, knowing from his earliest days growing up on a dairy farm that he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, preferably in a field that involved animals.

"Every kid who lives on a dairy farm wants to be a vet or work with animals in some other way. It was a bit of a surprise that I ended up working with the fishery instead of with agricultural livestock—but it's a surprise that's taken me on a journey I wouldn't have missed for the world."

Hook, line and sinker

The journey began during Jeff's studies in Nova Scotia when a professor showed him an unusual chemical structure and asked what he thought. Jeff was intrigued as he looked for the first time at domoic acid, a toxin that caused four deaths in Quebec in 1987 after a group of people ate contaminated mussels. The toxin, occasionally found in certain shellfish, can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning.

"From that moment, the field of shellfish toxins fascinated me. I saw huge possibilities for figuring these chemicals out and keeping people safe." Within two years Jeff was working at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a springboard to his job at the CFIA." Jeff's work at the CFIA has been so rewarding in part because of the freedom he's been given by management to pursue ideas about testing methodology.

Jeff says that far from putting him off of seafood, his work has made him a devoted consumer.

"The CFIA is really looking out for Canadians," he says. "I know how much effort goes into testing so I know for sure that Canada's supply of seafood is safe."