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PORTLAND, Maine (NECN) -- For many people, a summer vacation on the coast of Maine wouldn't be complete without a plate of fried clams or a bucket of mussels.

But shellfish can contain harmful, or even deadly, neurotoxins. Maine is the first state in the nation to receive FDA approval to use a new testing method that will detect bad shellfish sooner.

The Department of Marine Resources already does weekly testing at 160 locations up and down the coast looking for the presence of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

"PSP effects the nervous system and can shut it down landing you in the hospital, even potentially killing you," said Allison Sirois, Shellfish Program Manager for the Department of Marine Resources.

Until now, the DMR tested for the toxin by giving samples to lab mice. If a mouse died, the corresponding clam flat would be shutdown .

Now, through a new partnership with Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay, the testing has gone high tech. First, the mussels are shucked and blended into an extract.

"That extract is put into our instrumentation, which separates out the toxins we're interested in," Lab Manager Carlton Rauschenberg said.

The vials are put into what's called a High Pressure Liquid Chromatography System which does what the mouse test used to do, only better.

"With the newer technology, we have a lower detection limit which means we'll pick up the toxins sooner and we can watch it as it progresses toward the regulatory limit which is 80 micrograms," Sirois said.

At 80 micrograms, the DMR shuts the flat down. They'll then step up testing at that location until shellfish samples come out clean through two rounds of sampling. The new testing is cheaper too.

It costs $8 per sample, about half of what the old method cost.

Sirois says this will allow the DMR to maintain a rigorous testing program at 160 locations despite recent cuts in state funding. This will alert the industry to problems much earlier and with more precision.

And consumers will have more piece of mind, knowing the only thing they have to worry about over a plate of clams is whether they'll still have room for dessert.

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