- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. | Shawn Mattiuz, manager of the Hapuku Fish Shop in Market Hall, a collection of upscale food purveyors in Oakland’s bustling Rockridge district, has been watching the Gulf seafood saga play out in the ice-cooled trays of his display cases.

For a few days after the oil spill turned into a crisis this spring, demand stalled as “everybody freaked out,” he said. Since then, he says concern has died down and he’s selling about the same amount of Gulf shrimp as he did before the spill.

“I get a lot of questions about it, definitely. They want to know if it’s regulated,” Mr. Mattiuz said. “The truth of the matter is from everything that I’ve read, it’s more highly regulated now than it ever has been.”

More Gulf waters are reopening to fishermen, and government officials say seafood cleared for sale has been thoroughly inspected. Whether consumers are buying those assurances — and the fish — remains to be seen.

Nationally, an Associated Press-GfK poll that surveyed 1,007 adults nationwide from Aug. 11-16 found that 54 percent did not trust the seafood.

But Jimmy Galle, founder of Sausalito-based Gulfish LP and supplier to Hapuku and a number of upscale restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere, says his business has begun to increase again after a few lean months. “And the shrimp has been nothing less than spectacular lately,” he said.

Ann Cashion, co-owner of Johnny’s Half Shell in Washington, D.C., sees concerns about Gulf seafood safety fading.

“I find that people aren’t even asking right now. It was more on top of people’s brains when the oil was still flowing,” said Ms. Cashion, whose restaurant is one of Mr. Galle’s clients.

Ms. Cashion said she thinks the testing is thorough, particularly because state officials are involved.

“The state of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in general has so much to lose if there is any kind of problem with any seafood that gets through inspection, so I know the inspection is going to be thorough and is going to err on the side of ‘Let’s don’t take any chances,’” she said.

Not everyone shares that confidence in Gulf of Mexico seafood, which accounts for about 2 percent of overall U.S. seafood consumed.

“I would say that I always have a skeptical eye toward government regulation and government certification of things,” said Genie Gratto, an Oakland food blogger. “It’s been proven time and time again that, first of all government certification of food is such a massive job — the USDA and the FDA tend to be pretty understaffed in those kind of inspection areas — there’s no way they can get everything.”

On the other hand, she does have confidence in buying from trusted suppliers, like the small meat and fish market where she shops. She also tries to buy local, which doesn’t include Gulf seafood.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups recently asked the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to strengthen procedures for determining whether seafood is safe and whether fishing areas should be reopened.

They also want sampling protocols and data published online.

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