Consumer Confidence Still Down on Gulf Seafood

September 18/St. Petersburg, Fla./St. Petersburg Times -- Eight weeks after the oil stopped gushing, diners are regaining their shaken confidence in seafood, but remain particularly leery about anything culled from the gulf.

Never mind that there is no product shortage except for gulf oysters, or that regulators cleared 85% of the 600,000 square miles of gulf waters for fishing (up from 63% a month ago), or that testing for traces of oil by-products around the spill area has been stepped up.

"So far no contaminated seafood has entered the stream of commerce," said Martin May, a seafood research manager with the Florida Department of Agriculture. "We believe that within 60 days or so of an 'all clear,' we'll get a majority of customers back, but the rest are occasional seafood eaters who are critical long term."

Flagging demand lingered long enough that gulf seafood prices are falling. After a 50% run-up, prices are leveling off for oysters, which were hurt when 40% of the Louisiana crop was wiped out by a decision to flood the delta with freshwater to keep oil out of the marshes.

"We're continually getting questions about whether the seafood is safe," said Gib Magliano , owner of Save on Seafood, a St. Petersburg retailer that wholesales to Publix, Red Lobster, Cheesecake Factory and Cisco, the big restaurant food supplier. "Are the oysters safe? Do the shrimp have oil on them? Stupid stuff like that."

America imports 83% of its seafood from other countries and only 2% from the gulf. So suppliers had little trouble finding replacements while the Deepwater Horizon disaster raged.

On the line are the livelihoods of thousands employed by the Gulf Coast fishing industry. Oil idled many boats in port much of the summer. In Louisiana, only 20% of the fleet is out fishing because bigger boats are working for BP or because gulf seafood prices sank too low to cover expenses.

While many marine scientists say more research is required to give a clean bill of health to fishing grounds near the spill, the federal government has dramatically increased seafood testing there. Measures include smell tests, water quality samples and so far carving up 30,000 seafood creatures in search of oil by-products.

"The level of testing of gulf seafood is unprecedented in the U.S. and possibly anywhere," said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group.

Normally, consumers forget major food safety scares and sales fully recover within four to six weeks, but not this time.

As seafood demand remained relatively stable through the summer, confidence in the safety of gulf seafood nationally is showing only initial signs of a comeback.

At the height of the spill, surveys found 41% of seafood shoppers were unwilling to buy gulf seafood and almost a third unwilling to buy any seafood. Since then, shopper concerns have eased.

"My educated guess is it's turned positive by about 20% since hitting bottom," said Dennis Degeneffe , who compiles the Food Industry Safety Tracking study at the University of Minnesota. "But we still have a long way to go to recovery. The around-the-clock media coverage has stopped. So the healing process has begun."

Americans have been more skittish about seafood safety than other foods for a long time. That is partly because, except for coastal areas, fresh seafood has been a mass market product for only a few decades. Americans are less certain about how to choose or cook seafood, much less ask where it comes from, which explains why $50 billion of the $75.5 billion in seafood sold last year was served at restaurants.

It further explains why the first steps Louisiana seafood marketers chose to rehab their brand are appearances by New Orleans celebrity chefs touting the safety of gulf seafood. They also are hosting influential chefs from other regions on inspection tours of industry facilities.

"The gulf seafood industry has a major branding challenge rebuilding lost trust. It's going to take years," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board .

"Before the oil spill, we were losing market share to the imports," he said. "Now, we face images of oiled pelicans that are really burned into people's imaginations. "

From the October 4, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition