The Virginia Marine Products Board has launched an advertising campaign to boost sales of Chesapeake Bay oysters, which have taken a beating in seafood markets nationwide.
Sales of the oysters, which have been battered by drought and disease this summer, are down by as much as 25 percent this year, prompting the last-minute promotion effort by Virginia officials.
"We're in a bad situation right now," Westmoreland County oyster packer Ronnie Bevans said, "and there's nothing we can do about it until oysters get plentiful again."
Even on the Northern Neck, center of the state's oyster-packing industry, sales at some grocery stores trail last year's levels, the consequence of record high prices and bad publicity about drought-related diseases that killed many oysters in the bay.
At Warsaw Super Market in Warsaw, quarts of oysters are priced at up to $15 -- a $5 and $6 increase over last year, reflecting the scarcity of the product.
But the store's meat department manager, Billy Saunders, suspects the 20 percent drop in sales he has observed can be blamed on consumer concerns over MSX and dermo, the two diseases that have wiped out oyster beds all across the bay.
"I've heard several people asking questions" whether the oysters are safe to eat this year, he said. He answers by handing the shoppers brochures printed by the marine products board that stress that Virginia's oysters are perfectly safe.
The pamphlets points out that MSX and dermo are marine parasites "that have nothing to do with humans at all," Shirley Berg, the board's executive director, said. "The oysters are the only ones that have to worry about MSX and dermo."
Lake Cowart Jr. of Northumberland County, one of the oyster packers who asked Berg's office to address disease concerns, said packers feared they would have trouble meeting their orders this year because of the shortages in the bay.
"But, all of a sudden, we were sitting here with oysters and no one to sell them to," Cowart said. "The feedback I got was that consumers didn't want them," because they had read or heard news reports about the bay's disease problems.
"Even though all the stories I read said the disease could not hurt humans, consumers took the reports incorrectly," he said. "A lot of people don't read fine print and just read headlines."
The marine products board has sent its brochures and promotional materials to seafood dealers across the country, Berg said.
"We've just completed a mailing to 400 seafood buyers to let buyers know about the quality of Virginia oysters and the fact that our growing waters, as well as the packing houses, are constantly inspected by the Bureau of Shellfish Sanitation," she said.
Cowart said the next two weeks "will tell the tale" if the sales pitch worked. Grocery chains that sold their supplies of oysters over Thanksgiving should be placing new orders soon.
"We're hoping things get back to normal," he said.