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South Florida seafood restaurants try to calm consumer concerns about oil spill

FLORIDA (June 08, 2010 - The Palm Beach Post)—The chalkboard at City Oyster and Sushi spells it out: Blue Points from Long Island. Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Wellfleets from Cape Cod.

The Delray Beach restaurant never has served raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, but since the BP oil spill, General Manager Bob Beal carefully writes the origin next to the name of each oyster. He's worried that even the perception of tainted seafood could scare patrons.

Much of the seafood at local restaurants and groceries comes from waters outside of the Gulf, from as far away as Asia.

But the fear that oil is seeping into the food supply is hurting Florida's commercial fishing industry, and some worry it will affect seafood sellers, too.

"People hear, 'Oh, there's a huge oil leak in the Gulf,' and [think,] 'We better get our seafood somewhere else,'" said Terence McElroy, spokesman for Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

BP has provided $25 million to help the state get the word out that beaches and seafood are still good, but McElroy says that message is being lost.

The Gulf of Mexico is known for its oysters, shrimp, crab, snapper and grouper.

To try to quell fears, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson posted an open letter on fl-seafood.com titled "Setting the Record Straight About Florida Seafood."

In it, Bronson writes: "First, Florida seafood products are safe and plentiful. They have not been affected by the oil spill. Most of the Gulf of Mexico is untouched by oil, and our commercial fishermen continue to harvest products from these clean waters."

But retailers are facing skeptical shoppers.

At Whole Foods stores, managers pre-emptively posted signs in the seafood section promising shoppers something that should be patently obvious: that it is not selling any seafood from contaminated waters.

And yet store representatives aren't asking their customers to give them the benefit of the doubt. People are jittery, they know, so the chain is spelling it out.

Every day, a Whole Foods seafood coordinator studies maps released by the federal government showing where fishing is no longer allowed, said Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton. He also talks daily to his suppliers so that he knows where every variety of fish and shellfish coming into stores is caught.

When some fishing near Key West was shut down last week, he checked the boundary to be sure his supply of pink shrimp was not affected, Letton said.

So far, the oil has not forced Walmart or Publix stores to make changes to fish supplies coming into local stores, their representatives say.

Publix is still selling grouper from Madeira Beach, which is west of St. Petersburg, and Key West pink shrimp, said spokeswoman Kim Jaeger.

Steven Rash, owner of Water Street Seafoods in Apalachicola, said his 600 clients around the United States and Canada are still buying his grouper, but some are asking questions he's never encountered in 28 years in business.

They want to hear directly from him: "Is the seafood OK? How do you know it's OK? What provisions are in place to make sure the seafood is not contaminated by oil?"

For now, Rash says, he's been able to answer their questions and sell his fish.

Here is an example of where the seafood in your local Publix store is fished:

Tilapia: Ecuador and Costa Rica

Pink shrimp: Gulf of Mexico

Grouper: Madeira Beach

Wild salmon: Alaska

Farmed salmon: Norway or Chile

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