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Consumer Confidence Low, But Tests Show Gulf Seafood Safe

PANAMA CITY (CBS4) – Despite repeated studies showing no detectable effects from the BP oil spill, Florida seafood continues to get a black eye in the minds of Florida consumers, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Agriculture.

The survey found that 63 percent of Floridians have concerns over seafood safety, up from 48 percent in January. A majority of Floridians (59 percent) are concerned about unforeseen risks of the oil spill on the safety of Florida seafood, an increase from 49 percent from the previous survey. Nearly half, or 46 percent, of Floridians expressed concern about the long-term availability.

Gov. Rick Scott said he hopes to change that perception through advertising and marketing efforts like the tour of the Panhandle he's on this week.

"We know that it is safe," said Scott on Tuesday. "The bigger concern would be if it wasn't. Our job is to make everyone in the world know that not only does it taste good but it's safe."

Despite the public perception that Gulf seafood is not safe, testing by the Department's Division of Food Safety, the leader among Gulf coast states in testing seafood for effects of the oil spill, reveals that Florida seafood is safe.

"Over the last year, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has tested 230 samples, and our results confirm that Florida seafood is safe to eat," said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "The fact that we've found nothing of concern to the public is good news. Unfortunately, that message is not out there."

The Department's Chemical Residue Lab has screened finfish, shrimp, crabs, lobsters and oysters, and less than 11 percent were found to have traces of possible oil contaminants. All findings of traces are less than 1/1000th of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) levels of concern.

The survey's results were presented by the Department's Director of Marketing, Nelson Mongiovi, before Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner Putnam, at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting in Panama City. The Cabinet meeting featured presentations by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on industries affected by the oil spill and was held on Florida's Gulf Coast in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill.

"Florida's fishermen are still suffering from the drop-off in sales one year after the BP oil spill, even though rigorous laboratory testing continues to show that Florida's seafood harvest was not affected by the oil in the Gulf," said Nelson Mongiovi, the Department's Director of Marketing and Development. "It's safe now and always was. We hope that increased public awareness generated by our promotions will help reassure consumers that Florida seafood is safe and available."

Mongiovi's presentation also highlighted "Gulf Safe," the marketing campaign launched by the Department in August 2010 to combat the low consumer confidence in Florida's Gulf seafood and emphasize the safety and availability of Florida seafood harvested from the Gulf. There are full-page ads in the Florida edition of USA Today promoting the message "Enjoy With Confidence." Web ads will also run in 22 online newspapers statewide through early May.

A 30-second television PSA promoting the same message will air on broadcast stations in the Panhandle Gulf Coast region during late April, and will air statewide on cable stations through the end of June. Billboards, which will appear first in the Panhandle and later expand to other areas, promote the message, "Great Vacation. Great Seafood." All of the promotion and advertising components feature the "Florida Gulf Safe" logo.

"In addition to reaching Florida residents with our message of safety and availability, we're also targeting visitors to our state," Mongiovi said. "We want to reassure tourists about our seafood products and encourage them to enjoy Florida Gulf seafood while they are here."

The Department has partnered with the Florida clam farmers to launch a spring promotion with COSTCO. Starting in early May, COSTCO will double its normal purchases of Florida clams for in-store promotions that feature the "Florida Gulf Safe" logo.

"Florida's clam farmers were especially hard hit by the drop in seafood sales," Mongiovi said. "This marketing commitment from our valued retail partner COSTCO is a great way to reach consumers nationwide with the message that Florida clam producers are open for business with a quality product."

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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