Fear of Gulf Seafood
Any whiff of trouble bad for seafood: A guest column by Randy Fertel
Perception is reality, and a real threat to Gulf seafood is fear.
Experts disagree among themselves. A recent Times-Picayune article documented that, as did the Chefs Collaborative Summit I attended in Boston in October. Whatever the scientists say, fear continues to hang in the air. Fear is perhaps the most powerful human emotion — and it’s damaging the Louisiana seafood brand in ways we can’t fathom.
Members of the Chefs Collaborative — chefs and food writers — meet annually to “foster a sustainable food system.” This year their fears went beyond sustainability to the question of their customers’ next meal. How should they alleviate customers’ fears of salmonella-tainted eggs and the BP oil spill? The counsel offered from the podium again and again was, you’ve got to know and trust your suppliers.
But these were largely middle- to high-end chefs. Trust must also be the answer at our grocery stores and chain restaurants where our grocers, line cooks and their suppliers are faceless.
On the panel ominously called “The Gulf Oil Disaster: What will become of our domestic seafood supply,” Margaret Curole, who has been a commercial shrimper in Grand Isle for 20 years, stated emotionally that our fears are well-founded.
A member of the executive board of the Commercial Fishermen of America, and North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, Curole is not eating Grand Isle seafood — shrimp, oysters and finfish — and reports she knows no local fishermen who are.
Jon Bell, professor in the Department of Food Science at LSU Ag Center, argued just as stridently that fears of Gulf seafood are unfounded. The smell test being employed was effective, he argued. Literally, they are smelling the seafood. No smell, no taint. Bell wondered, “Why would consumers not trust the FDA and the EPA?”
That question provoked an audible gasp in the audience of chefs and food writers, as they recalled recent food-supply nightmare scenarios the FDA and EPA failed to prevent.
The sniff test doesn’t past the sniff test with consumers and diners around the country. President Obama eats Gulf seafood. High-profile restaurateur Alice Waters receives a weekly shipment of Gulf shrimp for her famous Chez Panisse restaurant and tells me “they are the most delicious shrimp I have ever had.”
We appreciate their efforts on our behalf in broadcasting the good news. But consumers who can’t put a face on their restaurateur, or their shrimper, or their grocer are more likely to avoid Gulf seafood altogether than chance a tainted dinner.
That’s the bad news. And bad news, like a bad smell, has staying power. Fishermen around the country are labeling their seafood “Not from the Gulf.” Restaurateurs are doing the same.
Our brand is damaged, and BP should pay restitution for that damage. But in the meantime, neither Margaret Curole nor Jon Bell is doing much to alleviate the fears that shape consumer perception. Nor is the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board when it offer vague promises like, “Seafood monitoring includes tests for the presence of oil.”
To fix the damage to our brand, we should seriously consider closing the Louisiana fishery for a period of time — six months? a year? — and then reopen it only after trustworthy third-party scientific bodies perform tests that go well beyond sniffing.
BP will not pay for that business interruption readily, but the company is responsible for it and should be made to pay.
If the fishery’s brand can be polished by losing one year’s productivity, valued at $2.5 billion, might BP be willing to embrace that expense rather than face being responsible for 10 years of some unknown proportion of brand damage, say 50 percent of $25 billion?
Randy Fertel is the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, devoted to education in South Louisiana and founded by his mother, a native of Plaquemines Parish who started Ruth’s Chris Steak House. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.