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Will the Oil Spill Affect Your Menu?
It’s not just BP execs and politicians who are scrambling to clean up the Gulf Coast oil spill.
Restaurants that rely on seafood sales are struggling with the impact of the recent Gulf Coast oil spill.

Restaurateurs and seafood trade association spokesmen conveyed a message of confidence in the safety of Gulf of Mexico–sourced seafood during the 91st annual National Restaurant Association's Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show.

“Our priority No. 1 is the safety of our consumers. That is the bottom line for us,” says Ewell Smith, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board executive director.

“Any product that will go to market is safe. There will be no product that will go to market from any closed area. Period.”

The panel of speakers during the briefing repeatedly reiterated the safety of seafood being fished from the Gulf waters. Any fishery closed was a matter of precaution and simply so the Board of Health could test and retest the seafood, says Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Louisiana.

“The Board of Health has done an unbelievable job in making sure all of our seafood is safe. I'm going to tell you in talking to our customers, the customers are all convinced our seafood is safe. We have no problems with that whatsoever,” Cvitanovich says.

The Gulf of Mexico oil leak, caused by an April 20 drilling rig explosion, has been spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels per day into the waters rich with sea life. A number of strategies have been deployed to minimize the impact of the oil slick, including floating booms on the water surface to trap oil and spraying hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant to break up oil droplets to maximize bacterial digestion.

In the most recent measure, state and local officials are pushing for the federal government's permission to build sand beams to protect Louisiana marshes and bayous from the spreading slick.

The deepwater well, owned by BP, is located about 45 miles from Venice, Louisiana. The oil slick is a “very serious issue” for the hotel, tourism, and dining industries in the region because of their heavy use of seafood.

Cuisine in the Gulf region, particularly in Louisiana, is based heavily on locally produced seafood. "New Orleans and Louisiana restaurants are famous for [one] main reason: obviously seafood that is indigenous to our area," Cvitanovich says.

We know we have some challenges ahead of us, but we'll come out better on the other side."

The Gulf States are the primary source for the American seafood market, supplying 69 percent of shrimp, 70 percent of oysters, and 90 percent of crawfish produced in the country.

The oil slick's potential impact on the restaurant trade is enormous, says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. Restaurants represent a $77 billion industry in the Gulf States and employ more than 2.2 million people, he says. Even a slight drop in business would drastically impact local economies.

However, area restaurateurs were not reporting any slowdown of business in the more than four weeks that have elapsed since the oil spill.

“We don't have any impact at all. If anything there has been more people at restaurants to eat seafood because of the fear factor,” says Jim Funk, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Seafood costs and availability have remained stable, Funk confirms.

“We know we have some challenges ahead of us, but we'll come out better on the other side,” Smith says.

Carolyn Surh is a Chicago-based freelance business writer. She covered the 2010 NRA Show for QSR.