Grocers shun bay seafood Market officials say customers fear Pfiesteria

Glendening frustrated

Health experts emphasize that fish are safe to eat

September 24, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Douglas M. Birch, Liz Bowie and Marcia Myers contributed to this article.

Despite repeated assurances by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and leading scientists that Maryland seafood is safe to eat, some of the state's grocery chains have adopted corporate policies of refusing to buy it.

Giant Food Inc., a 174-store regional chain that is the dominant grocer in Maryland, has bought no Maryland rockfish since Sept. 6.

Valu Foods, a 21-store Baltimore chain, has bought no Maryland seafood of any kind for three weeks.

Graul's, a small, upscale chain of four stores, has posted signs informing customers that none of its seafood comes from Chesapeake Bay waters.

Grocers say their decision to banish Maryland seafood -- sometimes even farm-raised fish -- stems from their customers' concerns about toxic microorganisms that have killed or sickened fish in three bay tributaries in the state.

"The majority of our customers aren't buying it," said Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher, referring to rockfish. "We can't bring it in if we have to dump it."

He added that Giant is still offering Maryland crabs and crab meat.

Informed yesterday of the supermarkets' policies, Glendening called the news "frustrating" and restated his "absolute confidence" that Maryland seafood is safe.

"There is no problem, and if a major food chain adopts policies like that, they're overreacting and becoming part of the problem," said the governor, who had just finished teaching a class about the bay to children at Franklin Square Elementary School in West Baltimore.

A spokesman for Glendening said later that executives from those grocery chains can expect to hear from the governor, probably as early as today.

The culprit behind consumers' concern -- many people are calling it hysteria -- is the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida.

Besides harming fish, the one-celled organisms have been linked to human health problems, but the illnesses have all been traced to exposure to water containing Pfiesteria toxins, not consumption of seafood.

The intensity of consumer reaction -- which has even depressed sales of orange roughy from New Zealand -- has surprised government officials and scientists, who have repeatedly stressed that there is no evidence that Pfiesteria is in the food supply.

"I'm puzzled and disheartened by the fact that people are not consuming fish for no valid health reasons and that real good people who work on the water are being hurt," said JoAnn Burkholder, the North Carolina State University scientist who has led the way in Pfiesteria research.

But even consumers who remain confident about Maryland seafood could have a hard time finding what they want.

A check of Baltimore-area supermarkets yesterday found few stores carrying rockfish -- now in season and said by watermen to be "prettier" than ever.

Even on the Eastern Shore, where catching and eating seafood is a way of life, rockfish were scarce. A spot check in the Salisbury area found no rockfish -- farm-raised or wild -- at one Giant, one Acme and three Super Fresh stores.

In Baltimore, no rockfish were on display at the Giant at the Rotunda on 40th Street.

One customer was able to buy a plump, healthy-looking wild rockfish -- with a tag indicating it came from Maryland -- at the Super Fresh down 40th Street. A clerk there said it was the first of the wild rockfish to sell in two days.

Executives from Super Fresh and another major chain with stores in Maryland, Safeway, could not be reached for comment.

The position taken by Giant is especially devastating to the Maryland seafood industry because it is the largest grocery chain in the mid-Atlantic region, with nearly a 30 percent share of the Baltimore market and an even stronger position in Washington.

Scher, director of public affairs for the Landover-based jTC company, said Giant stopped buying Maryland rockfish more than two weeks ago after much of its inventory ended up "in the Dumpster."

He said one factor making it difficult to sell rockfish, the only Maryland fish Giant has carried, is that the species normally has harmless blemishes on its skin.

Customers who had overlooked them for years were now noticing and mistakenly connecting them with the lesions characteristic of Pfiesteria exposure, he said.

He declined to estimate how much money Giant's rockfish suppliers are losing because of the company's action.

Scher -- who said he personally believes the rockfish are safe -- could not say what it would take for Giant to resume purchases of Maryland rockfish. He called the company's policy "a day-to-day situation."

Some retailers have taken an even harder line than Giant.

Harold Graul, president of Graul's Markets, said his company for the past several weeks has avoided all seafood from the Chesapeake Bay. He said the company has posted signs in all of its stores notifying customers of that policy.

"We just had so many customers asking what the origin of the fish was," Graul said. "As soon as the majority of the customers found it was a local product, they just didn't want it."

Lou Denrich, president of Valu Food, said his chain is not going to buy Chesapeake Bay seafood until the Pfiesteria problem has ended.

"We are avoiding it at this time until we feel the consumer is not threatened," said Denrich, who said his chain usually spends $6,000 to $10,000 a week on local rockfish in season. He said the stores are offering farm-raised rockfish from North Carolina.

Ironically, that is the state with the most severe Pfiesteria outbreaks, including some affecting aquaculture.

Denrich said he might consider resuming sales of Maryland seafood if state officials were to send him notification -- suitable for posting in stores -- that it is safe: "Let them take responsibility."

One company that has not spurned Maryland seafood is Metro Food Markets, the No. 2 chain in the Baltimore area.

John Ryder, president, said Metro has reduced its purchases because of diminished demand but there has been "no blanket decision" to avoid local seafood.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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