Launching a new initiative to buy more domestic produce, the U.S. military has purchased upward of 30,000 pounds of Gulf seafood in the past few months, by far the majority from the Emeril label.
So far, 72 of the military’s 249 commissaries, which are grocery stores that sell only to military personnel and their families, have begun selling that seafood, pitched as both helping a Gulf seafood market turned on its side by the oil spill and a step toward increasing and promoting domestic catch nationally. In doing so, the military apparently has cast aside concerns about the safety of seafood caught in waters tainted by the BP disaster in April.
Beginning to promote more domestically caught fish overall, the commissaries recently placed signs in their frozen food aisles, separating domestic and foreign fish into different freezer cases.
At the stores, military retirees, active duty and Reserve members, National Guard troops and their families are able to buy groceries at cost and without sales taxes. The Defense Commissary Agency states that its shoppers save about 30 percent compared with general commercial prices, worth about $4,400 a year for a family of four.
The wholesaler New Orleans Fish House, based in New Orleans with seafood processing centered in Lafayette, is supplying all the Gulf seafood to the commissaries, said Mike Ketchum, the fish house’s director of retail sales.
Products include Emeril’s frozen shrimp, crab cakes and jambalaya, and next week, the commissaries will add Emeril’s crawfish etouffee.
Ketchum says the military stocks only “name brands” and that Emeril Lagasse’s products are preferred both because of his name recognition and the work he has done visiting and cooking on military bases.
He said Emeril’s shrimp is purchased from throughout the Gulf: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.
In addition to the Emeril products, New Orleans Fish House is supplying the commissaries with Crystal Seas Oysters out of Mississippi.
Military officials acknowledged that some commissary customers have been nervous about the new Gulf seafood offerings because of the oil spill, but it appears customers are becoming accustomed to the Gulf fare.
Ketchum said he’s recently received requests for more oysters, a sign, he says, that fears about contamination are softening.
In addition to the seafood, Zapp’s chips and Zatarain’s and Tony Chachere’s mixes are being sold at the commissary, and other local products are expected to be offered later this year.
Since at least December, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who doubles as President Barack Obama’s point man on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery, has pressed America’s armed services to embrace Gulf seafood.
Mabus, former governor of Mississippi, spoke about that push with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the secretaries of the Air Force and Army, and Mabus’ staff in turn began discussions with the Defense Commissary Agency, which operates the global chain of stores for military personnel.
On Tuesday, the New Orleans area’s new Belle Chase Naval Air Station commissary opened with a ceremony highlighting the military’s move toward juiced-up marketing of the local catch. Joseph Jeu, director of the Defense Commissary Agency, acknowledged at the opening that the commissaries are selling Gulf seafood at Mabus’ urging.
About 40,000 eligible people live within a 40-mile radius of the new 100,000-square-foot, $43 million military grocery in Belle Chase, according to the Defense Commissary Agency. But the 2,230 people who live at the base are expected to use the grocery most frequently.
Rolling out the initiative
The 72 stores selling Gulf seafood are along the East Coast and Gulf region. Out of the remaining 177 commissaries not yet selling Gulf seafood, 100 are within the United States, and the other 67 are dispersed over 12 foreign countries, said Kevin Robinson, a Defense Commissary Agency spokesman.
And while domestic product is being highlighted, Chris Burns, the Defense Commissary Agency’s director of sales, has said the emphasis is on contracting with companies that provide local seafood at “commissary-level savings.”
Ketchum said that in the next six months, he expects to supply the Gulf seafood products to the remaining commissaries. He says the New Orleans Seafood House lost about $8 million last year because of the spill and that he hopes the military contract this year will help make up some of that shortfall.
Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, has said he hopes the initiative eventually will expand to other public domains, such as prisons and schools.
But while most local fishers appear pleased with the steps, a few critics are pitching the move as a hazard to American soldiers.
On Tuesday, the same day as the Belle Chase opening, Stuart Smith, a New Orleans environmental attorney, sent out an e-mail message that says offering Gulf seafood to the military is “reckless and premature.”
Smith, who is representing fishers, businesses and organizations in suits against BP, wrote it is “reprehensible that our military men and women should now become a dumping ground for potentially tainted seafood, but that is what is happening as the Defense Commissary Agency bows to federal pressure to buy Gulf Coast seafood and feed it to our fighting men and women.”
Smith linked to findings by Wilma Subra, a New Iberia biochemist and environmental activist who has stated that the human health effects of the spill are greater and will linger far longer than the oil industry and the U.S. government have acknowledged.
But scientists largely disagree, and many who most emphatically insist on the existence of health problems have pending litigation against BP.
During visits to south Louisiana last summer, President Barack Obama assured consumers that Gulf seafood was safe. He was photographed chomping into hefty boiled shrimp in Grand Isle and ordering a shrimp po-boy at Parkway Bakery.
A division of the National Institutes of Health has started a program to track the long-term health effects of the spill, and Obama’s National Oil Spill Commission recommended in January that the Environmental Protection Agency establish a more thorough protocol to monitor health effects of major spills.
Benjamin Alexander-Bloch can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3321.