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Gulf Spill Fix Part 2: Consumer Confidence

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The Gulf oil spill is being called the single largest man-made environmental disaster in human history, and at this point the extent of damage to the marine environment in the Gulf and the surrounding waters can't even be fully measured -- without a doubt the marine ecosystem will be recovering from this event for decades. However, even beyond the damage to the Gulf are the latent ramifications of this event, the consequences that aren't yet realized. The question begs to be asked: What is the real price of the BP oil spill? For example, what is the social and economic impact of diminished confidence and reduced consumption of seafood?

A recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota really tells the tale for the American consumer. The survey found that more than half of Americans (54 percent) have changed their seafood consumption as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill -- and nearly a third of those intend to eat less seafood irrespective of its origin. Responses from 1,076 individuals show that 89 percent of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about the effect of the spill on the safety of seafood from the Gulf, and 50 percent said they were "extremely concerned." Moreover, out of the 54 percent of respondents that reported some impact to their seafood consumption habits, 44 percent of that group said they would only eat seafood that they knew did not come from the Gulf. Even more importantly, another 31 percent said they would eat less seafood no matter what its origin.

Dennis Degeneffe a research fellow at The Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota said that while the results aren't surprising, they do show that "consumers are connecting the event to food safety".

And why shouldn't they? According to a recent Huffington Post blog article from Gina Solomon of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC):

What we know from previous spills is that oil contaminants are processed differently by fish and shellfish and the length of contamination varies, and that metals, such as mercury, cadmium, and lead can be found in crude oil. When these metals accumulate they can damage the liver, kidneys, brain, and nervous system... The highest levels of oil-related metals will likely occur in large fish such as tuna and mackerel many years in the future. Shellfish like oysters, crabs and shrimp are much slower at removing contaminants -- one study found that oysters continued to be contaminated seven years after an oil spill.

And all of these facts seem to contradict the announcement that just this last month 70% of Louisiana waters were declared safe and opened for commercial fishing. Even with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) touting that they're "taking extraordinary steps to assure a high level of confidence in the seafood" many consumers (and rightly so) are still highly suspect of the government's response to this disaster and the safety of seafood in general (interesting sidebar is the fact that the full sampling plan that NOAA and FDA are using to collect seafood samples has not been made public).

In addition to the social impact of the spill, the economic impact has been devastating--the oil spill has derailed a slew of businesses along the Gulf Coast, from fishermen to marinas to restaurants and hotels. And while seafood supply is obviously hurting, at the same time seafood demand has fallen dramatically because processors' longtime customers, such as restaurants and grocery chains, have turned to other sources or are skittish to buy Gulf seafood. Figures included in a recent issue of Seafood Business show that locally approximately 27,000 people rely on Gulf seafood for employment/livelihood, a figure that becomes exponentially more important for the local economy given that "processors across Louisiana have reported laying off workers and operating at around a 20% production level." Ewell Smith, director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board also articulates that businesses that typically buy from local processors are getting their seafood from other sources, including the East Coast, West Coast and foreign countries, a trend that could take years to reverse, he says .

Today more than 6 months after the spill, it's clear the social and economic consequences of this disaster are just beginning to be realized. Now more than ever it's of the utmost importance that the private sector take tangible steps to help boost consumer confidence in seafood, particularly Gulf seafood. As the CEO of Safe Harbor, a company whose sole purpose is to increase confidence in seafood, I encourage industry fence-sitters and skeptics to take action by testing for major risk factors in the seafood products they provide. By doing so, as an industry we can help get the Gulf economy back on its feet and help the seafood industry in general rebound from this debilitating event.

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