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Fishy Business

Many people now take fish oil in supplements or foods, convinced of the benefits shown in a number of medical studies. However, there are also dangers associated with fish oils because the fish which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as mackerel, trout, tuna and salmon, often accumulate toxic substances in them because of their position in the food chain.

Faced with the global demand for fish oils and tighter restrictions in the EU on toxins in the oils, a cluster of Norwegian and French companies and researchers saw a niche in the market for a cost-effective method to remove harmful components. “By making a cheaper process for purifying fish oils available, we are contributing to safer food,” said Bente Gilbu Tilset, the coordinator of EUREKA project E!3198 RFO (Refinement of Fish Oils), who works for SINTEF, Norway’s largest independent research organisation. Fish oils also find their way into human food via being fed to fish, she added. As well as SINTEF’s team, researchers from the French public institute Ifremer joined, specialists in improving the quality of foods and fish by-products. Norway’s Due Miljo, a developer of environmental technologies for the food industry, also signed up, as did Copalis, a cooperative which treats by-products from fish filleting plants at the French port Boulogne-sur-Mer. Another key player for the RFO project was NovaSep Orelis, a French firm which produces industrial ceramic membranes and modules. The team decided to test whether ceramic membranes – thin sheets of materials which allow liquid through – could be used to filter the fish oil, removing dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a form of environmental pollutants). “Ceramic membranes are harder and therefore last longer. They can also withstand higher temperatures” said Tilset. The partners have developed and trialled a method for purifying fish oil, both in the laboratory and on site which cuts costs by 40 percent compared to traditional filtration methods. Their method is now in use at the site of Copalis in France. The team has successfully patented their method in Norway and applied for patents in Peru, Chile and Argentina, all large potential markets for fish oils. “Doing this without the partnership and without the EUREKA stamp would have made it very difficult to get loans and the development would have taken much longer,” said Tilset. “Here we built a team where everybody was dedicated to getting this to work.” The RFO participants have used the method to develop modular industrial units which can be used by small companies, meaning fish oils do not have to be transported to large sites, which generates extra costs. The partners are now in talks with potential customers about selling them industrial units. In order to demonstrate and further develop the method on a large scale, the team successfully applied for funding from the Norwegian government to build a new industrial plant in the country where fish oils from the Baltic Sea will be treated.


France, Norway