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Fins Across America 

Skeptical buyers, chefs and diners worry gulf seafood is tainted by the oil disaster and local and federal agencies assure it's as safe as ever.

click to enlarge Crystal Mugnier, a chemical analyst at Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratories in Metairie, testing for hydrocarbons in samples of Louisiana seafood June 10. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Crystal Mugnier, a chemical analyst at Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratories in Metairie, testing for hydrocarbons in samples of Louisiana seafood June 10.

Louisiana needs a slogan. Jim Funk has one: "If it's on the menu, it's safe."

Funk, president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), stands by his statement, and it's one he's willing to spread across the country to restaurants, chefs and diners.

  "The last thing restaurants want to do is serve anything that might make a customer sick — that could destroy your reputation, lose your business," he says. "Everyone is being very careful. Restaurants are getting plenty of seafood, and it's safe. There's no question about it."

  Importing foreign, frozen seafood is and presumably will remain blasphemy to finer local restaurants. But Funk worries diners are scrutinizing not the seafood quality, nor taste, nor prices, but its safety. He and other LRA members fear restaurants, from the Great Lakes to the East and West coasts, will abandon Gulf seafood altogether as the BP oil disaster's volatile slicks penetrate the coast. And Funk says tainted food is a problem of perception more than reality.

  "We're afraid people still have a fear," Funk says. "People out of state might read something in the paper, that some restaurant in Baltimore is not going to buy any more Louisiana seafood — why in the world would they say that? It's beyond me."

According to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, 90 percent of the country's domestic crawfish, 69 percent of its shrimp, and 70 percent of its oysters, come from the Gulf. Louisiana is also the largest provider of live male No. 1 crabs to the East Coast. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, one the LRA and the board (and now BP, with its $40 million bump to Louisiana seafood and tourism campaigns) aim to protect.

  The National Restaurant Association convened in Chicago last month for its annual show, and LRA was there to get out its message. The board even launched a website (www.louisianaseafoodnews.com) to ensure accurate coverage of Louisiana seafood. But in Chicago, getting that seafood isn't as simple.

  In a New York Times profile of Chicago restaurants bracing for drops in Gulf seafood supplies, executive chef Cary Taylor of The Southern was quoted as saying he stopped using Gulf brown shrimp in his popular shrimp and grits because of "supply concerns and customer fears." But that's not the case, Taylor tells Gambit. Though some customers are concerned about the quality, it's the quantity they worry about, and so does Taylor.

  "There's not really been any concerns from our customers," Taylor says about safety fears. "And we certainly assure them it's not that big of a deal."

  Taylor says supply and demand is the problem — and so are the costs, which would have to be relayed to the customers.

  "I grew up in Georgia with the adage 'Only eat oysters in the months that end in R,'" he says. "I would not be serving, in Chicago, Gulf oysters in June or July anyway. But as far as shrimp — it's funny, after that article came out it was Memorial Day weekend, and we had a boil with a bunch of Gulf brown shrimp. But lately we've just been getting a really great sustainable shrimp product from somewhere else other than the Gulf."

  Taylor says The Southern's Gulf Coast-inspired menu still features Louisiana crawfish, but fresh, sustainably harvested Gulf seafood is on an as-available basis.

  "The big problem is whether Chicago restaurants get the supplies," he says. "The guys harvesting oysters for four generations in your neck of the woods, they're going to lose everything they know. That's a big problem here."

Tommy Cvitanovich represents a Croatian legacy in south Louisiana — his father Drago opened Drago's in 1969, establishing a family institution and Metairie (and now a downtown) seafood destination. The menu features Drago's popular signature charbroiled oysters.

  The Louisiana Office of Public Health and Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) closed 11 oyster harvest areas as a precautionary measure — oil hasn't breached the beds, but it lingers near the oysters' fragile waterways. For years, the Cvitanovich family has enjoyed its family-owned oyster beds supplying the restaurants, but now those beds are an oil target. Cvitanovich stands by the safety of his product.

  "Everybody up and down the food chain understands the last thing we need is tainted or contaminated seafood to be in the marketplace," he says. "I mean, look at the oyster closures. They're all precautionary. ... They are erring on the side of caution and I'm OK with that."

  His customers question the availability of seafood on the menu more than its safety, he says. "Everybody asks about availability. I get some, but very little questions about quality and safety of the seafood," he says. "Very, very little."

  Drago's still has oysters on its menu, but Cvitanovich is supplementing them with mussels imported from the Northeast. During a healthy year, Drago's would not have any problem getting oysters, but now it has two obstacles: BP's oil disaster, and a year-old rule requiring raw oysters be refrigerated no more than an hour after harvest — what used to be an eight-hour time limit.

  "We ran out of oysters for raw consumption a couple times last week," Cvitanovich says, "but we always have oysters available for cooking."

  Funk is positive Louisiana restaurants and diners will stand behind local products.

  "If some restaurants say 'We don't have it available,' it may just mean the prices have gone up and they're concerned about raising prices. Everybody's being very careful," he says. "Our people in Louisiana know their food. They know their restaurants. I don't think there's going to be any slowing down of eating out because of (safety) concerns in Louisiana."

  Funk says continuing to promote local seafood could "help us continue to turn the tide about what people think out there," despite signs in restaurants across the country meant to ease customers' minds: "Not serving Gulf seafood."

  "I don't agree with it, and I don't like it, but if they choose to put up a sign, they think that helps them, so be it," Cvitanovich says. "In business today, there's not much you can do. Just educate, educate, educate."

"I had a couple dozen last weekend," says Clayton Williams, assistant secretary of the Office of Public Health. "The oysters that make it into the market are not tainted with oil. We can assure that. The industry has no interest in serving oysters that have been tainted, and they're on heightened vigilance."

  The Office of Public Health, DHH, the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, with help from fishermen, overlook oyster harvest area closures and safety. The agencies opened and closed several beds — 17 of 30 areas are open while two others are only partially opened. (The partial closures are in areas 2 and 3 near Lake Borgne close to the Chandeleur Islands. The other closed areas are 9 through 15 and 17, all west of the Mississippi River, and 28, south of Vermillion Bay.)

  Williams says agency staff members visit oyster beds and perform sensory tests — staff members handle, smell and taste oysters, before they send samples to laboratories for chemical tests. The oysters are sent to Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratory in Metairie, where they undergo tests for the presence of hydrocarbons.

  The tests, however, aren't looking for chemical dispersants — yet.

  "It's not clear yet from the federal agencies involved and from the producers of the dispersants what to test for yet," he says. "If this disaster continues, we're going to be enhancing our testing — the numbers of the things we're testing for and the frequencies."

  Williams says apart from the normal risks diners should keep in mind when eating raw seafood, the public doesn't need any additional precautions. "We want to protect the industry, and we want to protect the consumers," he says.

  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is now training "sniffers" to check for the presence of oil by smelling seafood. NOAA and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries continue to monitor the coast as they open and close portions of its waters to fishing, oil permitting. About 37 percent of the Gulf is now closed — but about half the production is shut down, with oyster beds locked up and fishermen taking jobs as BP cleanup workers.

  The disaster claimed one New Orleans institution last week. Sal Sunseri of the 134-year-old P&J Oysters, which has long reigned as the city's premier oyster provider, laid off his oyster shuckers. The company will purchase pre-shucked Alabama oysters, but it's only a matter of time before those oyster beds will close, too.

  "The mother lode of all seafood in Louisiana is Barataria Bay, and that's completely closed," Cvitanovich says. "Probably won't be reopened in the near future."

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