As sales of gulf seafood sink like a rock, Florida seafood marketers are scrambling to mount a campaign to counter food safety misinformation spreading as fast as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"This just slapped us out of the blue, so we've had to divert several programs just to react," said Nelson Mongiovi, marketing director for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Now we're trying to keep track of fast changing consumer buying trends, educate people about the safety of Florida seafood and anticipate what happens if the spill starts moving down Florida's west coast. It's a tough balancing act."
Three things they know for sure:
• Two-thirds of the gulf's U.S. fisheries remain open to commercial fishing and are unaffected by the spreading oil spill. All of the state's east coast Atlantic fishing grounds remain open.
• The department's independent polling confirms what a recent University of Minnesota survey uncovered. Half of all seafood buyers nationally say the spill changed their seafood buying habits. While 41 percent stopped buying any gulf seafood, 31 percent stopped buying all seafood since the spill became a national headline.
Yet only 2 percent of U.S. seafood comes from the gulf, says the National Fisheries Institute, and only 17 percent of what is consumed here is domestic, reports Phil Lempert, a food marketing consultant.
• The worst is where the oil is. Sales of seafood in the Panhandle, where tarballs are now washing up on some beaches, nosedived 30 percent this summer thanks to weakened tourism and skittish residents.
With less than $5 million in state tax money and industry contributions earmarked to promote all Florida food products (except citrus), there was little left to divert to the seafood campaign.
While state Agriculture Secretary Charles Bronson and his staff have been reaching out to get face time on news programs, they are now ramping up the first direct-to-consumer paid promotions.
The department on Friday launches $130,000 worth of TV ads to air for a month in Pensacola, Panama City and Tallahassee. The 60-second spots, produced in-house, pan vacant, ramshackle old Panhandle seafood houses while an announcer intones: "We're in business, but we need your help. Florida seafood is safe and ready."
If the ads help reverse the sales needle in the hard hit Panhandle, expect to see them in the rest of Florida followed by other big seafood-buying states.
Meantime, about $150,000 more was invested in setting up a toll-free seafood hot line (800-357-4273), an informational website (www.FL-Seafood.com) and social media presence. That includes a frequently asked questions section about nuances of the state's seafood harvest, maps of the open and closed gulf fishing grounds and live web cams airing the action from docks in Pensacola to seafood restaurants in Key West.
The tab for all this was picked up from the first $50 million the Florida state government secured from oil giant BP.
Meantime local seafood markets and supermarket chains including Kroger and Publix are promoting the Florida catch through in-store displays while ordering state-supplied stickers to label safe gulf seafood.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8252.