Posted: April 21, 201
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Article SummaryReporter Ben Bloch of the New Orleans Times-Picayune emailed me about a story he was writing on why many people were put off Gulf seafood by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – so much so that now, two years later, 30% of the respondents in a recent survey said they were still apprehensive. This is the response I sent him. He used only a little of it in his story, not including my suggestion that officials might have been too quick and too keen to tell people there was no problem. But he did find a lot of other good material on the psychology of stigma in such situations.

Why Do Many People Still Refuse to Eat Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico?

(an April 17, 2012 email to Benjamin Alexander-Bloch of the New Orleans Times-Picayune)

Benjamin Alexander-Bloch’s New Orleans Times-Picayune article is also online.

It is entirely natural for people to avoid seafood that might have been contaminated somehow by the Deepwater Horizon spill … for awhile. What’s surprising is that 30% of the country, according to the survey you cite, is still doing so two years after the spill.

You attribute this long-lived apprehensiveness [in his email to me ] in part to the uncertainty expressed by scientists in the immediate aftermath of the spill. I have exactly the opposite hypothesis: I would attribute it in part to the fact that the seafood industry and state government officials insisted the seafood was safe to eat much too quickly and much too emphatically. There was, I think, insufficient uncertainty. I don’t recall officials saying we’ll wait a few months and then we’ll do this and that to find out if it’s safe. Instead, they quickly assured people that it’s safe, and then set out to prove their contention.

Cautious officials letting us watch while they tried to figure out whether the seafood was safe to eat would have been much more persuasive than overconfident officials trying to prove to us that the seafood was safe to eat.

Moreover, people’s aversion to eating “oil spill seafood” wasn’t just about safety. It was also – and perhaps mainly – about the yuck factor, people’s natural aversion to eating a creature that may have been feeding on a diet of crude oil and various chemicals used to fight the fire and spill. To help people overcome this natural aversion, officials needed to be empathic about it. Instead, they ignored it, pretending that the sole issue was whether the food was safe to eat (it presumably was), not whether it was appealing to think about eating (for many, it definitely wasn’t).

After the December 2004 tsunami, many people in South Asia were similarly reluctant to eat seafood that might have fed on the dead bodies of tsunami victims. Jody Lanard and I wrote about this in a February 2005 column on my website:

Officials immediately announced that the fish were safe – that fish that might have eaten corpses don’t cause disease. Some added that the fish were unlikely to have eaten corpses since there was so much other more desirable food in the ocean; or that any corpses eaten by fish would be thoroughly digested by the fish (as if that were reassuring); or that “germs” from the corpses couldn’t survive in the fish anyhow. These claims may all be true, but the official statements that carried them came too quickly and sounded too glib….

Officials also called for compassion for the fisherman – a completely appropriate call. But there was very little compassion expressed for people who were reluctant to eat the fish.

A more empathic approach would have balanced the claim that post-spill Gulf seafood was safe to eat with the acknowledgment that people might not find it appetizing for a while. Giving consumers empathic “permission” to take a break from Gulf seafood would probably have shortened the length of that break.

Bottom line: I think officials’ glib, premature, overconfident and unempathic endorsement of Gulf seafood prolonged some consumers’ caution.

Might scientific uncertainty have prolonged some consumers’ caution as well? I think it might. Uncertainty plays a complicated dual role in risk communication. If people are already upset and worried about a particular risk, expert uncertainty tends to make them more so: “How dare you expose me to this scary risk when you’re not sure it’s safe! I don’t want to be an unwilling test subject in your experiment!” On the other hand, if people are inclined to shrug the risk off, expert uncertainty gives them a rationale for doing so: “Even the experts aren’t sure it’s dangerous, so I’m not going to worry about it. I’ll take it seriously when they agree it’s serious.”

The combination of scientists expressing uncertainty about the safety of Gulf seafood and officials expressing confidence that there’s nothing to worry about might have been the worst possible combination for nursing people through their adjustment reaction and back to eating the seafood.

And when expert uncertainty declined (as it quickly did), it would have helped to offer people a coherent, understandable explanation of why the experts were now convinced the seafood was safe to eat. I recall what one public health professional (a doctor at CDC) told me about the safety of Gulf seafood. I don’t have the quote verbatim, but this is a pretty close paraphrase. “Both oil and the chemicals they used to fight the spill may be hazardous in large quantities,” he explained. “But they taste horrible even in small quantities. That’s why we’re not worried about consumer risk from eating the food. Long before there’s enough bad stuff to make people sick, there’s enough bad stuff to make people spit it out.”

He warned me that that’s not true for all poisons; some toxins are dangerous in much smaller concentrations than people can taste. But not oil, and not the chemicals deployed at Deepwater Horizon. For those, he said, “if it tastes good, it’s safe.”

I’m not certain what he said was entirely true; he was talking off-the-cuff to a colleague, not delivering an official risk assessment. But I found it extremely credible, and if it the science was solid it’s probably one of the things state officials should have said, and should still say. It’s a good solution to your worry [in his email] about the difficulty of proving a negative. “If it doesn’t taste bad, it hasn’t got enough oil or oil-fighting chemicals in it to hurt you.” That really is a way to prove the negative!

Unfortunately, I can easily imagine that even if this is solid science, officials might still have refused to say it, not wanting to mention the possibility that somebody might taste something foul in a Gulf seafood product and spit it out.

A final point: One reason – perhaps the dominant reason – why many people are still worried about the safety of Gulf seafood is because many people unconsciously want Gulf seafood to be unsafe. If Gulf seafood is still unsafe two years after the Deepwater Horizon fire and spill, then Deepwater Horizon was obviously a disaster. But if the seafood is safe to eat, then maybe the Gulf has recovered well, or maybe it wasn’t all that damaged in the first place. If that’s true, maybe we shouldn’t be so angry at BP.

I think there are millions of people who want to stay angry at BP, and therefore want Deepwater Horizon to have been a disaster. This gives them a reason to want Gulf seafood to stay unsafe.

This hypothesis may be testable, at least in part. Did the survey that found that 30% of Americans still mistrust Gulf seafood ask any questions about how horrific respondents think the spill was and how angry they are at BP? If it did, what are the correlations among these three variables? Are people who think the spill was a disaster and BP shouldn’t be forgiven more resistant to eating Gulf seafood than people who have more moderate opinions? If so, that begins to suggest that a desire to stay angry at BP may be fueling people’s conviction that the spill was disastrous, which may be fueling their suspicion that Gulf seafood is dangerous to eat.

I’m not suggesting that those who want to encourage the 30% to come back to Gulf seafood need first to convince them to reassess the seriousness of the spill and cut BP some slack. Instead, they may need to offer the 30% a Deepwater Horizon narrative that makes eating Gulf seafood again compatible with staying angry at BP and staying convinced the spill was disastrous. “The seafood has come back pure and clean and good to eat, but that doesn’t let BP off the hook. Here’s why….”

Copyright © 2012 by Peter M. Sandman

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