NEW ORLEANS — Sales of Gulf of Mexico seafood are getting a boost from the military after being hammered by last year's BP oil spill, which left consumers fearing the water's bounty had been tainted.
Ten products including fish, shrimp, oysters, crab cakes, and packaged Cajun dishes such as jambalaya and shrimp etouffee are being promoted at 72 base commissaries along the East Coast, said Milt Ackerman, president of Military Solutions Inc., which is supplying seafood to the businesses.
Gulf seafood sales fell sharply after BP PLC's Gulf well blew out in April, spewing millions of gallons of oil into the sea. Consumers have long feared that fish, oysters and other products could be tainted by oil and chemicals used to fight the spill, even though extensive testing has indicated the food is safe. The perception has lingered – along with the poor sales.
Bobby Barnett, a shrimper in Pass Christian, Miss., said he was glad the U.S. government was embracing domestic and not imported seafood.
"Every sale helps us out, and we need some help to come back," Barnett said. "You would have thought they would have been buying U.S. seafood all along."
The Defense Department-run Defense Commissary Agency – known as DeCa – sells groceries to military personnel, reservists, retirees and their families at cost plus a 5 percent surcharge. The stores have emphasized healthy diets as part of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" fitness and health campaign.
"What fits in with that better than seafood?" Ackerman said.
The Gulf promotion begins Tuesday at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, La., where chefs from the military and New Orleans' restaurants will cook up Gulf delicacies. Some 20,000 people have commissary privileges at the air base just outside New Orleans.
"We're doing dishes that the home cook can take home and cook easily," said Chef Tenney Flynn of GW Fins' French Quarter restaurant, who will prepare black drum with tomato sauce.
Commissary shoppers will be able to take home the recipes.
The commissaries deal was brokered by Ready 4 Takeoff, a group that has worked since Hurricane Katrina to help the Gulf Coast, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Mabus was appointed by President Barack Obama in June to oversee the Gulf's recovery from BP's massive oil spill, which began in April.
DeCa spokesman Kevin Robinson said the agency viewed promoting Gulf seafood as an opportunity to expand its focus on domestic seafood and broaden choices for commissary shoppers.
The Gulf buys are not receiving special funding but are part of a DeCa revamp of its purchasing.
The New Orleans Fish House, a wholesaler that buys from fishermen at dockside, is making an initial shipment of 10,000 pounds of Gulf seafood to the commissaries, said Mike Ketchum, director of retail sales. Some will be packaged frozen shrimp products under the label of famed chef Emeril Lagasse.
"Compared to our existing customers, that is on the lower end," Ketchum said. "But we see it taking off quickly. They could certainly become one of our biggest customers."
So far, 72 of the 249 U.S. commissaries have committed to stocking Gulf seafood, but more could join the program. Before, a large majority of the seafood stocked at commissaries was imported, Ketchum said. Progressive Grocer magazine ranked the commissary chain as the nation's 17th largest grocery chain.
"That's true of all the grocery industry, but now our government is stepping up and saying they will use domestic product," he said.
The boost couldn't come at a better time. The New Orleans Fish House, for instance, was selling $40 million in seafood annually before the spill. Now, Ketchum said, the company is doing about $10 million.
A recent Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board survey found 70 percent of people are still nervous about eating Gulf seafood, said executive director Ewell Smith.
"And that's with all the testing that has been done and is still being done," he said.
Some commissary customers have been just as nervous, but not enough to pull seafood from the shelves, Ackerman said.
"We believe that will fade quickly," he said.
Associated Press Writer Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report.