Tuesday, September 14, 2010

White House's Comerford, FDA's Hamburg Go Crabbing & Safety Confabbing In New Orleans

Video: Top Toque & Top Doc promote Gulf seafood; Louisiana Lt. Governor, Restaurant Association call on BP to fund image rehab for seafood industry
UPDATE, Dec. 2010: The White House ordered 2,000 pounds of Gulf Seafood for Holiday Receptions
On Sunday and Monday, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford visited New Orleans, Louisiana for a special trip designed to both encourage America's chefs to put Gulf seafood back on their menus, and to reassure worried seafood lovers that the area's bounty is completely safe. FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg also traveled to the Big Easy, to give a special briefing to Comerford and a group of chefs invited from across America to join the shrimpy shindig.

The trip included a crab boat outing on Lake Pontchartrain, and a visit to Pontchartrain Blue Crab processing plant, and was organized by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board with the help of the White House. (Above: Aboard a crab boat, Harlan Pearce (in red) of the LSPMB shows Hamburg and Comerford how to handle freshly caught blue crabs)

Comerford and Hamburg's trip is the latest salvo in an ongoing Pennsylvania Avenue push to re-boot and boost the Gulf seafood economy, following the calamitous April 20 explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Sales of Gulf seafood have been sluggish amidst consumer fears; shrimp prices are now at an all-time low.

The unprecedented White House campaign has included plenty of public mentions--and public consumption--of Gulf seafood delights by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. It began on August 8, when Gulf shrimp was the sole menu item announced (on national television) for the President's belated 49th birthday barbecue on the South Lawn. There's also been fun seafood stunts, such as the New Orleans Saints cooking in the White House kitchen, and the creation of a 30-ft. White House shrimp and oyster Po'Boy.

According to an East Wing spokesperson, the campaign is the result of White House staffers' and admin officials' visits to the Gulf, and internal discussions on how to best help the fisherman, shrimpers and the local economy.

"The federal government is doing everything we can to make sure that the Gulf Coast recovers from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill as quickly and wholly as possible," said the West Wing's Reid Cherlin. "The seafood industry is more than just an economic driver in the Gulf – it’s a way of life. White House, HHS, and NOAA staff, and local officials have been working together to make sure people know that Gulf seafood is safe to eat – and as delicious as ever – and the chefs tour is just one part of that effort.” “ (Above: Comerford, at right, at the crab processing facility, with fellow chefs)

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board's membership is made up of seafood experts, fishermen, and scientists, and it's appointed by Governor Bobby Jindal (R). During various periods in the months-long oil spill aftermath, Gov. Jindal--and many Louisiana Parish Presidents--were vociferous critics of both Obama administration and BP cleanup efforts. The Seafood Board just released this video of the trip, starring Comerford:

“It’s not just about the fish itself, not just about the seafood, but it's about livelihood and about the families that have really invested so much,” Comerford says, mid tour, from the deck of the crab boat.

Comerford was joined in New Orleans by White House assistant chef Tafari Campbell, and famed New Orleans chefs John Folse and John Besh led the local contingent. Hamburg and Assistant Research Scientist Richard Waller from the Center for Fisheries Research and Development in Dauphin Island, Alabama, met with the group on board the crab boat, and talked about testing protocols and fishery health. An FDA spokesperson said Hamburg did not have prepared remarks, and no text would be released. Hamburg doesn't speak in the video, but Comerford sums up the message.

“Between the FDA and NOAA all the scientists are doing everything they can to ensure that whatever comes to the market are good for public consumption,” Comerford said. “Not that they are just good for public consumption but that they are the good quality – it tastes good and it’s safe. What more do you need to know?”

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been responsible for the openings and closing of federal fishing waters during the spill aftermath. Although its very large mandate includes oceans, weather, climate and the environment, NOAA is located in the Department of Commerce. Part of its mission is selling products--and that includes Gulf seafood. NOAA sponsors the Great American Seafood Cookoff held in New Orleans each year, which has chefs from around the US competing for prizes. Tafari Campbell won third prize in 2008; he was then employed in the Bush White House. NOAA chief Dr. Jane Lubchenco hosted a White House livechat on August 16 to answer questions about Gulf seafood safety, and she had just one message: Eat Gulf seafood! (Above: Campbell boards the crab boat on Monday).

On Monday afternoon, Comerford and her fellow chefs cooked special seafood dishes for an evening block party hosted by the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit that helps citizens displaced by Hurricane Katrina return home to New Orleans. Comerford, Campbell, Besh, and other chefs christened the kitchen in a new St. Bernard's home with a big batch of shrimp jambalaya; resident Gloria Caesar's house is the 374th built by the org. The day's activities were filmed by Food Network, for the show My Life In Food, which is produced by Al Roker. Other media got in on the action, too.

Louisiana Lt. Governor Angelle, Louisiana chefs call on BP to pay up
The White House Gulf seafood promotion efforts are making up for yet another element of BP's corporate irresponsibility. Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, has proposed that BP fund a seafood marketing and testing project to restore the image of Gulf seafood amid ongoing consumer fears, but so far this idea has fallen on very deaf ears.

On Sept. 10, Louisiana Lt. Governor Scott Angelle, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and a group of high-profile New Orleans chefs--including Besh--sent Robert Dudley, Chief Managing Director for BP, a letter demanding that the company set up a five-year, $173 million fund for comprehensive testing, monitoring and a marketing plan to "certify to the nation and the world that Louisiana seafood is safe."

"The ripple effects of the catastrophic BP oil spill are still being felt throughout the state," Lt. Gov. Angelle and his cohorts wrote. "Recent analysis shows that 29 percent of visitors surveyed cancelled or postponed a trip to Louisiana due to the oil spill, and according to a study by Market Dynamics Research Group of those who said they were not likely to visit Louisiana after the oil spill, around 25 percent said they would be more likely to visit Louisiana if they knew that Louisiana seafood was safe."

The letter reminded Dudley that the request for this fund was first made on May 29, and noted that BP has spent about $100 million on a multimedia marketing campaign to restore its own damaged image.

Despite the $20 billion BP escrow fund set up to help those whose lives and livlihoods have been devastated by the oil spill, the Gulf seafood industry is still waiting for its special fund. There are now more than 300 separate criminal and civil suits pending against BP, and on Monday, the Justice Department announced that it is considering suing BP on multiple tracks, asking for special standing for both civil and criminal cases.

Local news station WWL TV covers Comerford breaking in the St. Bernard's kitchen:

The invited chefs
Comerford and Hamburg were joined on the seafood tour by New Orleans chefs Chip Flanagan, of Ralph's on The Park; Drew Dzejak, The Grill Room; Greg Reggio, Taste Buds, Inc.; Chris Lusk, Café Adelaide; Christopher Lynch and Barusch Rabasa, Meson 923. From Washington, DC: Victor Albisu, from BLT Steak; Robert Weidmaier of Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, Mussel Bar, BRABO and Jeff Trunks, of Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast, PassionFish, and TenPenh. From Miami, FL: Peter Vauthy of Red The Steakhouse; Michael Schwartz from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; Michelle Bernstein from Michy's and Sra. Martinez. From Seattle, WA: Dan Bugge and Chester Gerl from Matt's In The Market. From Los Angeles, CA: Brandon Boudet from Dominick's. From Phoenix, AZ: James Siao of Taggia.

(Above: Chefs Wesley True, Victor Albisu, Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz, Lee Anne Wong, Kelsey Nixon, Peter Vauthy, James Siao during the St. Bernard's block party)

Jackie Sayet of Michael's Genuine Genuine Food & Drink in Miami took the photos in this post; the rest of her excellent photos of the trip are on Flickr. *Video from Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.
>EPA's BP oil spill Gulf testing result page is here; NOAA's fishery closures and other information is here; FDA's information page is here.