To Eat or Not To Eat?
By Tina Antolini
Crawfish etouffee. A shrimp po boy. Crabcakes. Oysters on the half shell, like a mouthful of the sea… All things I ate during the last week, reporting for SOTRU on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. All of which I enjoyed, and all of which feel as if they speak to something essential about life in this region: the melding of the sea with ritual, the way the Gulf is so intertwined with culture here that they’re impossible to separate—nor would you want to. Except that I ate all of those meals with hesitation, a hesitation shared by many locals. Why? Because of something that happened months ago, which now only barely surfaces in the mainstream news media: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Now, you may have heard that’s all over: the seafood’s safe, the beaches are open, all is back to normal. For those of us that don’t live on the Gulf Coast, that might be fairly true. But for locals, the reality is considerably more complicated.
It comes down to who you believe: the federal government or the watchdog groups, the small restaurant owner or the woman daily taking pictures of dead fish and turtles she finds on the beach. The FDA has proclaimed Gulf shrimp and its ilk safe to eat, pointing to their rigorous and ongoing testing. But for some who live on the coast, the FDA’s statements offer no reassurance. Independent chemist (and McArthur Genius Award winner) Wilma Subra– along with environmental advocates, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade– have been doing their own testing of seafood. They come up with similar data to the FDA; where they differ is how to interpret it. What the FDA thinks is a reasonable amount of trace oil and dispersants in the seafood, Subra, the Bucket Brigade and others don’t buy. They’re skeptical of the samples taken, of the release of FDA data in complicated tables that most members of the public would be hard-pressed to decode, and of the math that claims the average Gulf Coast resident would be fine eating multiple meals of seafood, every day, month after month.
So: who do you believe? For many in this region, it boils down to a trust of the official word—or the complete lack thereof. For some who feel that their government failed them in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a government they see as having partnered with the culprit, BP, in the clean-up of the oil spill—why would you believe what you were being told by Washington D.C.? For others, the desire to get back to normal, to resume a life enriched by daily plates of shrimp and oysters, to see businesses dependent upon seafood flourish once again—that is enough to take the official word as truth. It comes down to an individual decision: to eat or not to eat? For communities all along the Gulf Coast, that is the question.