Is Gulf Seafood Safe? Depends on Who You Ask.

President Obama doesn’t have any problem eating Gulf Coast seafood. His chef, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, doesn’t have any problem preparing it. Neither do a lot of restaurants in New Orleans, a city on the leading edge of the culinary world and the water’s edge of this summer’s massive BP oil spill. But the scientific community jury is still out, large areas of the Gulf remain closed to fishing, and it will be years before the spill’s full effect will be known.

So, should you worry about eating seafood now from the Gulf? More importantly, should you worry about serving it to your customers? You might be curious to hear some of the early returns.

The Government Effort
The federal government is working hard to assure everyone that Gulf seafood is safe. In July, President Obama hosted a ceremony honoring the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The main course? Gulf shrimp. His chef toured New Orleans recently to promote the area’s seafood. More significantly, the government has opened more of the Gulf to commercial and recreational fishing and shrimping after testing showed no signs of risk. Today, only 18 percent of the Gulf remains closed, down from around 37 percent in June.

And, of course, the Gulf Coast fishing and shrimping industry is anxious to get healthy again itself. They have support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s administrator. Lubchenco said government scientists have been regularly monitoring shrimp from the Gulf and will continue to, and the reopening of closed waters is another signal to tourists that the northern Gulf is open for business.

The government and the industry also have real opponents in the two-dozen organizations that feel the government reopened the waters prematurely. The united group, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Gulf Restoration Network, have called for the NOAA and the FDA to make substantial changes in Gulf seafood testing.

The Public Weighs In
If you’re looking for guidance from the public, consider the record crowds that attended this year’s New Orleans Seafood Festival, held the weekend of September 11. Locals and tourists alike answered a resounding “Don’t worry about it” as they sampled crab, catfish, shrimp and oysters from the Gulf. As one attendee put it, “It hasn’t killed me yet.”

Adrian Marin, whose Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts was one of 20 vendors participating in the three-day event, said it was encouraging to see a festival full of vendors serving seafood and a crowd of people wanting to eat it.

According to Chris Lusk, executive chef of Café Adelaide in New Orleans, “Right now it is the safest seafood it has ever been in history with the different regulatory agencies checking it five or six times.” Lusk said when Gulf seafood wasn’t available, he juggled purveyors and reassured customers that his restaurant would never serve anything he wouldn’t serve to his family.

Use Common Sense
As an operator, you have important decisions to make, and a reputation to maintain, just like the government and the restaurants that offer Gulf seafood. Common sense says to continue to rely on suppliers you can trust, find different sources if you’re not confident, and continue following the story.

When you’re trying to decide whether or not to eat Gulf seafood, take comfort from the willing guinea pigs who attended the New Orleans Festival. Or, find someone like Chris Lusk.