Is it still safe to eat that overstuffed po-boy filled with Louisiana shrimp, spicy boiled crabs and succulent shrimp or fresh grilled red snapper topped with Louisiana’s fresh crabmeat?
Experts say yes — Louisiana seafood is still safe, available and delicious.
According to experts with the LSU AgCenter and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana seafood is safe and consumers don’t need to worry about the safety of eating Louisiana seafood following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, now in day 79.
There is not any need for seafood lovers to put away their boiling pots, Cajun boiling seasonings, crab crackers or cast iron frying pots. There’s not a seafood crisis just yet.
“All Louisiana seafood sold in retail stores and supermarkets, as well as in restaurants, is safe to eat,” said LSU AgCenter nutritionist Beth Reames in a news release.
“Fishing areas affected by the spill are closed to fishing and oyster collection. Retailers obtain their seafood from nonclosed waters. Seafood that is determined to be unsafe will not be allowed on the market by regulatory agencies.”
Reames cited daily testing of seafood by local, state and federal experts and scientists to check for oil on the water surface and on seafood meat.
According to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, chemical tests of 600 samples of Gulf seafood looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) showed pristine levels. Dr. Steven Murawski, chief science advisor for NOAA Fisheries Service, said sensory analysis is being done at the NOAA lab in Pascagoula, Miss. and the chemical analysis is being conducted in Washington State.
He reported that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was cleaner and less contaminated than typical seafood samples from some other coasts, primarily because the areas sampled in the Gulf are far from any large population centers and major cities where there is more environmental contamination with PAHs.
In addition, recent Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries tests on seafood samples from inshore waters of Louisiana have shown levels to be below detection limits.
Guidelines for limits of PAH exposure to food safety have been calculated based on past oil spill occurrences and vary by the type of seafood.
“PAHs are found throughout our environment, including our food supply, both raw and cooked,” Reames said. “There have been no recorded illnesses due to PAH exposure at most levels encountered in our environment or in other foods, but elevated levels will require controls to prevent excessive exposure.”
Several local restaurant owners and chefs said they have not experienced any of their customers hesitating to order anything off their menus that features Louisiana seafood.
Renown Chef Alex Patout isn’t giving up on Louisiana seafood. Patout, who has gained notoriety throughout the country and in the past was hailed by Food and Wine magazine as one of the top 25 hottest chefs in America and was called a genius chief by Esquire is back in his hometown of New Iberia dishing up his famous cuisine prepared with fresh Louisiana seafood from the Gulf of Mexico at Landry’s Seafood and Steakhouse.
Patout said while the seafood industry has not reached a crisis situation yet, there is not the abundant selection available that chefs have become accustomed to in the past.
“Red snapper is becoming a little more difficult to find and oysters from the area are no longer available, said Patout.
Patout said he does stay on the phone quite a bit to remain on top of any changes in the available supply in the seafood industry and is using his contacts he made during his 25 years as a chef to make sure seafood is available to customers.
“We still have access to all of our local fish and shrimp are still coming in off the boats,” said Patout.
While the shrimp yields are less and prices higher, Patout said the drop in available shrimp is not due to a production problem, but one caused by an inventory issue as consumers and restaurants increase their orders for cold storage in preparation if there would be a future crisis in the industry.
The over-stuffed shrimp po-boy offered at Bon Creole Seafood is still a favorite of Randy Montegut’s customers.
Montegut said his customers are still requesting all of their favorite Gulf seafood offered on the restaurant menu.
“No one is complaining about the taste. As long as they are assured of the quality and safety, people will keep eating Louisiana seafood, said Montegut.
“While the supply has decreased, Louisiana Gulf shrimp are still available.”
Montegut doesn’t attribute the short supply directly to the shrimp’s catch being lessened by the oil spell.
“We had a cold winter and production was pushed back. We started the season with a short supply and everyone is now ordering double amounts of shrimp to stock up. The demand is just greater than normal at this time of the year,” he said.
Montegut can’t say the same for oysters. It may be a while before seafood lovers can enjoy cold, fresh salty oysters right out of the shell because of the growing number of closed oyster beds in the Gulf.
With the closing of the Ameripure oyster company in Franklin, Montegut said oysters will not be on the menus of many restaurants. The company supplied many of the local restaurants with fresh oysters as well as nation wide chains such as Red Lobster.
“We served our last oyster Friday,” he said.
Montegut said he had just received word that his order for 5,000 pounds of shrimp would be filled.
“We’re making sure that we have some extra shrimp in the freezer as a backup,” he said.
Montegut has been operating his restaurant, which prides itself on fresh Louisiana seafood, for 14 years.
“It is going to take more than this for us to stop selling seafood,” he said.
Laura LeBlanc, an owner of Seafood Connection, said sales had not dropped any as the result of the oil spill.
“Our customers know the seafood is safe and they are still ordering it. They are still ordering boiled shrimp and crabs. Right now, we are taking it one day at a time,” she said.
LeBlanc said they don’t purchase processed shrimp, the restaurant peels their own for seafood dishes and so far there has not been any problem getting the supply needed for the day to day operation of the restaurant.
“People in the area are stuck on seafood and they are not ready to give it up,” she said. “We’re still using all local seafood, I hope it doesn’t get to the point that we have to make a change.”
Montegut said as long as there are fresh Louisiana shrimp available, he plans to continue serving it.
“If it gets to the point that we have to turn to imported shrimp, I will consider it but imported shrimp is not really one of my favorites,” he said.
If the Louisiana seafood industry does reach a critical point, Patout said it is important for south Louisianians to remember who they are and their culture.
“We have always been blessed with a rich inventory of seafood available for our cooking style and seasonings which is such a unique combination,” said Patout. While no one knows what the overall effect will be from the oil spill, it is it is important to remember the area is still blessed with an abundance of fresh water seafood. Crawfish, fresh locally raised and wild catfish will be still be available, as well as shrimp from other areas and other types of fish he said.
“We’ll be paying more for it, but it will still be available. We have so many other options for seafood and we have a lot to rely on. We still have our culture and the way we cook. Our techniques won’t change, but we may just have to adapt them to other seafood,” said Patout.
“We will never lose sight of who we are. Our heads will be held high, flags waving and we will still thank God we live in south Louisiana.”