Oysters: From The Gulf To The Table

With large swaths of the Gulf closed to fishing, seafood markets and restaurants are already feeling the pinch. To track the economic consequences of the leak from the water to the dinner table, Michele Norris talks to Louisiana oyster processor Patrick Fahey; Southern California distributor Angel de la Riva; and David Levi, buyer for his wife's New York restaurant, Mara's Homemade.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The economic effect of the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is beginning to be felt in the food chain. About one-eight of the fish and shellfish consumed in the U.S. comes from the Gulf. And with large swaths of the Gulf closed to fishing, seafood markets and restaurants are already feeling the pinch.

We wanted to track the economic consequences of the leak from the water to the dinner table, and we've decided to focus on oysters. One reason: Oysters are particular vulnerable to pollution and to the vagaries of temperature and transportation, as they move from processor to distributor to restaurant.

So we're going to begin with an oyster processor who cleans and prepares oysters harvested from the ocean. We start with Patrick Fahey. He runs AmeriPure Processing in Franklin, Louisiana. He joins us from his office. Welcome to the program, Mr. Fahey.

Mr. PATRICK FAHEY (Managing Partner, AmeriPure Processing Company Inc.): Hi, Michele. How are you?

NORRIS: Now, your company processes oysters from across the country. How has the spill affected your business, Mr. Fahey?

Mr. FAHEY: It's had a profound effect on our business. We're selling about 25 percent of what we were prior to the spill. It's very difficult to, A, meet customer demand and then, B, as time goes on, to satisfy customers' curiosities as to - is this product okay, the product that we're receiving now? Well, it is. The little bit that we've got is fine. It's not been effected by the oil. Thats not to say that at some point in future, these harvest areas won't be affected. But up till now, we've maintained product integrity.

NORRIS: You know, some restaurants around the country are beginning to put up signs that say: We dont serve seafood or shellfish from Louisiana. I was in New York yesterday, I saw one of those signs.

Mr. FAHEY: Hmm.

NORRIS: Does that worry you?

Mr. FAHEY: Yes, it worries us very much. Extreme precautions are being taken at this point to ensure that what we do have access to is wholesome, and in fact it is. Thats something we're going to have to overcome and I think it will take years.

If we are able to survive this, if the beds dont get destroyed, we'll still have years of work to do to overcome perception problems that are setting in right now, as we speak.

NORRIS: Mr. Fahey, you sound very weary.

Mr. FAHEY: Im tired. We have - we're working twice as hard to do about 25 percent as much. And it grates on you after a while. And just seeing the images of that thing spewing poison into our beautiful Gulf, it just sucks it out of you. It sucks the life out of you.

NORRIS: Patrick Fahey runs AmeriPure Processing in Franklin, Louisiana. It's also known as the AmeriPure Oyster Company.

Mr. Fahey, thank you very much.

Mr. FAHEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: When oysters leave AmeriPure's processing operation, they go next to a distributer, a place like Carmenita Seafoods in Santa Fe Springs, California. Angel de la Riva is the owner and he joins us now from there. Mr. De la Riva, thank you for being with us.

Mr. ANGEL DE LA RIVA (Owner, Carmenita Seafoods): You're welcome.

NORRIS: For the oysters that you are able to get your hands on, are you finding that there are customers? Are you able to unload product from the Gulf Coast or are people worried about Gulf Coast oysters?

Mr. DE LA RIVA: Well, they worry about it. And, you know, because, I mean, right now I've seen a lot of these restaurants - I have close to 500 accounts and most of these accounts these use these Louisiana oysters. Theyve been using that for so long, the customers get used to the product.

Now, since there is no product, we try to bring something else to their tables but they dont like it.

NORRIS: So if you can't give oysters, what are you offering them instead?

Mr. DE LA RIVA: Some oysters from Mexico. But the oysters from Mexico, thats a completely different animal and the taste is different. So, I mean, its generally hard for us. You know, a lot of people, they're struggling to survive. Because, I mean, I have accounts who they were going through 40 cases a week. Now they're only using maybe two cases a week. We're losing big time.

NORRIS: Are you concerned about the long-term here, that if restaurants can't get their hands on Gulf Coast oysters, if Gulf Coast oysters start to be seen as a worrisome product, something that is polluted in the long run, that people might not come back, they might not look to the Gulf for oysters anymore?

Mr. DE LA RIVA: If we don't get oysters, let's say within three months, then people start getting used to something else. Let's say if in six months we start getting oysters from the Gulf, then those customers, they're gone because they got used to this other product. And believe me, they're not going to switch to the oysters from the Gulf.

NORRIS: That was Angel de la Riva. He's the owner of Carmenita Seafoods in Santa Fe Springs, California. Mr. de la Riva, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. DE LA RIVA: Okay, thank you.

NORRIS: Finally, we turn to David Levi. He helps run a restaurant called Mara's Homemade. That's in New York City. Mr. Levi, do you serve Louisiana oysters on the menu?

Mr. DAVID LEVI (Buyer, Mara's Homemade): Yes, we do. And most everything we serve comes from Louisiana.

NORRIS: So if you serve a lot of Louisiana oysters, how's business right now? Are you able to get your hands on Louisiana oysters?

Mr. LEVI: Sometimes. The difference between before the oil spill and now is the price. And for us, the price has gone up almost three times.

NORRIS: Put some numbers on that for me. How much do those oysters cost when you buy them, and how much are the items on your menu as a result?

Mr. LEVI: Before the oil spill, we would pay anywhere from 22 to 26 cents an oyster and sell them normally for $9 a dozen. We have a supplier in New Orleans and she'll put them on an airplane for us, but they're like 65 cents to get them here. Then when we raise the price to $15 a dozen, customers start giving us resistance to it.

NORRIS: So at what point do you have to pivot as a restaurant owner? If you just can't get your hands on Louisiana oysters, at what point do you have to look to other places like the Delaware River or maybe even Puget Sound or Portland? What point do you have to give up on Louisiana, or do you?

Mr. LEVI: When the customers won't eat it or pay for it. Price isn't the only problem that we're getting right now. We're being asked about almost everything we serve from down there: Are you sure it's safe? Including crawfish, which comes from freshwater, some of it in the middle of the state, not even close to the oil.

It's more of, will people buy it, not as opposed to can we get our hands on it. We can get our hands on it, but it's also whether people who come into the restaurant, whether they're from New York or tourists, have confidence in the state of Louisiana and the federal government that the food that they're letting out is safe.

NORRIS: Mr. Levi, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. LEVI: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's David Levi. He's with the restaurant Mara's Homemade. That's in New York City.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: We also heard from oyster processor Patrick Fahey and seafood distributor Angel de la Riva.

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