More Diners Are Asking: Is This Seafood Safe to Eat?

Gulf oysters These days, Dallas chef AJ Joglekar spends plenty of time addressing concerns from customers about the impact of the ongoing Gulf oil spill on the seafood he serves in his restaurant Dallas Fish Market, which Bon Appetit magazine considers one of the best of its kind in the country.

"I am not crazily affected," he says in an interview, adding that he's starting to buy some of the seafood he usually gets from the Gulf of Mexico, such as shrimp and oysters, from other parts of the country. "It's going to affect my costs, but for me quality is paramount."

Worried customers are also coming to Sam Mink, owner of Philadelphia's Oyster House, and to Bryce Gilbert, manager of Reef in Houston. "This is all so new," Mink says. "If the price of shrimp and crab skyrockets, certainly we will have to raise our prices." Gilbert says so far he has gotten some inquiries from customers only "here and there" about food safety and possible price increases.

Horrible Timing for Gulf Fisheries

Darden Restaurants (DRI), parent of the Red Lobster chain, isn't having any problems with fish supplies, according to a spokesman. McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants (MSSR), which operates 94 seafood restaurants, didn't immediately return calls seeking comment.

"We are closely monitoring the situation in the Gulf and are in constant contact with our local seafood purveyors along with local state and federal authorities" says Jeff Hinson, a spokesman for New Orleans restaurateur and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. "The majority of our current seafood supply has not been disrupted. We are kind of taking it day by day."

The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster, which killed 11 and created what some experts say is the worst environmental calamity since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, couldn't have come at a worst time for the Gulf's fishing industry, which has been struggling to rebuild ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area five years ago. Industry officials are worried about a consumer panic. That has restaurateurs assuring diners that seafood from the Gulf is safe. Much of the fish that arrives from the region is frozen, so the fish being served now were probably caught before the spill.

"Seafood from Gulf is safe without question," says Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, "There are places that are completely unaffected by this."

Idled Fleets

What remains unknown, however, is what impact the disaster will have on prices consumers pay. Seafood wholesalers say price increases are possible if demand rises and supplies fall. Russell Knapp of E. Goodwin & Sons in Jessup, Md., told local TV station WJZ that market conditions will dictate prices. "We won't have a choice, and neither will the consumer at the end. What will affect them is how much it'll cost," he said.

Shrimp lovers may be hit especially hard because shrimp prices were already rising for the past few months because of a ban on Mexican imports. "For domestic shrimp, [higher prices are] entirely possible," says John Sackton, president of the market research firm Seafood.com. "Whether that spreads to the overall market [which relies heavily on imports] remains to be seen."

Many fleets in the Gulf are now idle after federal authorities banned commercial and recreational fishing from the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana to Florida's Pensacola Bay. The closure is set to last for at least 10 days and is aimed at keeping seafood safe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials from the $3.4 billion Louisiana seafood industry, the region's largest, say they support the move.

"This is just one more step that our Louisiana seafood industry and partners are taking to be proactive in ensuring consumer safety," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, whose state is the largest provider of shrimp, oysters, crab and crawfish in the U.S., in a press release. "The nation should remember that this closure only pertains to the impacted area of the Gulf of Mexico, not the entire Gulf. The Louisiana state waters west of the Mississippi River are still open, and the seafood being harvested from those areas is safe."

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