One year later, oil spill and seafood message may be getting muddled

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wwltv.com

Posted on April 22, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News

NEW ORLEANS -- For months, the message has been the same: leaders hammering home that Gulf seafood is safe and the most tested in the country.

"Over 1,000 tests have been done, and not in one -- not in one of those 1,000-plus tests -- have there been any samples that were dangerous for human consumption," said Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-Louisiana, on the first anniversary of the spill.

Yet, on that same day, the governor also said 300 miles of Louisiana's coastline are still dealing with some form of oil from the spill.

"Look, the authorities would be very quick, if there's any signs, they'll close those waters like they did last year," Jindal said.

Those dueling messages -- that the oil spill clean-up needs to continue, but that the seafood is safe -- could be sending mixed signals. Experts say that may be especially true for people who live outside of the Gulf Coast and may be on the fence about whether to eat Gulf seafood.

"It does get lost to them until you do the messaging really well," said Prof. Harish Sujan, a marketing professor with the Freedman School of Business at Tulane University.

Sujan said the key to getting people to believe the message is to counter any argument with consensus, consistency and clarity.

"Point out that there is a clear separation, there's inspection, so we know that the seafood that's contaminated doesn't get out to the marketplace," he said.

In the marketplace, though, some problems remain.

"I don't know if we'll ever recover fully from it," said Henry Poynot, owner of Big Fisherman Seafood on Magazine Street.

Poynot said overcoming the oil spill is proving to be harder than overcoming Hurricane Katrina, even with a mostly local clientele.

"Still to this day, we still get three or four people a day asking about the oil and if they have oil in it," Poynot said.

That is why, at the end of the day, Sujan said it won't be leaders that convince people to eat seafood, but rather regular people who share their experience by word of mouth.

"It would be all very well for the White House to serve Gulf shrimp, but that's not going to convince people because they'll figure the White House knows how to get the right stuff," Sujan said. "What you need is a consensus, such as a large number of eating places in the city, serving Gulf shrimp to tourists and the tourists reporting that they feel fine and the experience was good."

A number of state and federal agencies continue testing the seafood and the water it comes from, including the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Food and Drug Administration.

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