LA seafood industry still dealing with negative perceptions over safety

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by Scott Satchfield / Eyewitness News

wwltv.com

Posted on April 18, 2011 at 9:47 AM

NEW ORLEANS - Over the past year, they've heard plenty about the Gulf oil spill. Some even followed the story closely.

And tourists we talked with Sunday, say the disaster isn't holding them back from eating Louisiana seafood.

"I have no qualms whatsoever. This is my first time in New Orleans. It didn't even enter into my planning. I'm here to eat seafood," said Shannon Parker from Houston, Texas.

Keith Pearson, from Carlyle, PA, agrees.

"Everything's been great," he said.

It's a welcomed vote of confidence for local restaurants, but some still face lingering fears.

"They're asking, you know, 'Is your seafood safe?' And then you've gotta sit there and tell them how, you know, it's the most tested seafood, how everything is coming back perfectly clean," said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago's Restaurant.

Cvitanovich says the perception problem is still very real.

At a conference of restaurateurs from across the country in Washington, D.C. last week, he says that point was reinforced.

"One of our restaurants up there was serving oysters, and it was amazing how many restaurateurs, who are supposed to be in the know, supposed to know a little about the food they're serving -- they're sitting there asking, 'Are those oysters from the gulf, and if so, are they safe?'" Cvitanovich said.

Some even refused to eat them, he said.

With the help of $30 million from BP, state seafood industry leaders hope to combat those fears through a national marketing campaign.

They're working now to hire a firm that will spearhead the effort.

"By the end of this month, we'll have that agency on record, and the first thing we're gonna do is the research with that agency to specifically, really laser target our efforts based on research and numbers," said Ewell Smith, Executive Director of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board.

But while experts will lead the way, Smith says locals can help.

"I mean with all the great festivals that are going on like Jazz Fest coming up, man, what an opportunity for this city to spread the word," he said.

At Drago's Sunday, a fundraiser helped pack the house and plenty of Louisiana seafood was served.

But Cvitanovich says he's seen enough consumer hesitation to know, there's still lots of convincing to do.

"Whether we like it or not, our brand of Louisiana seafood around the country is damaged," he said. "We need to fix it."

For Cvitanovich and others, this week presents a big opportunity.

The one year anniversary of the oil spill is expected to recapture some of the national spotlight, and industry leaders say it's a chance to, once again, tell the country -- the seafood is safe.

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