Tomalley Advisory Takes on a Life of its Own
A week ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration--replicating advisories Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts had previously issued--reminded consumers to avoid eating tomalley, which functions as a lobster's liver, pancreas and intestines and therefore accumulates toxins that may cause paralytic shellfish poisoning during a red tide outbreak.
On Wednesday, I commented that the FDA advisory, though well intentioned, could scare more consumers away from lobster than it saves from the risk of ingesting tomalley, a substance the vast majority of Americans can't identify. But even this cynical scribe didn't expect a frenzy to erupt as it has: Restaurants nationwide have removed American lobster from the menu for fear of litigious diners.
John Sands, director of fresh purchasing for Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co. in Las Vegas, says he knows of five Sin City casino-hotels that have stopped menuing live lobster and even frozen lobster tails; some have gone as far as emptying and sanitizing their lobster tanks for fear that the tomalley has contaminated the water.
"Las Vegas is treating this as a recall," says Sands, whose company has picked up new accounts because it distributes only Nova Scotia lobster. "These casino-hotels are so susceptible to lawsuits because they're so big. Some properties, even when everything blows over, will not bring [live lobster] back."
Aiden Coburn, quality control director for The Fish Market Restaurants in San Francisco, received a call from the manager of the company's Phoenix restaurant at 5 p.m. Monday. A crew from the city's NBC affiliate, KPNX-TV, waited anxiously in the lobby after a reporter had asked, "How do you intend to serve Maine lobster in light of the FDA advisory about toxic tomalley?"
Coburn says The Fish Market had no choice but to pull live lobster from the menu at its eight California and Arizona restaurants.
"We have taken Maines off the menu not because we want to, but because until we can get [better] data we're afraid [to serve it]; we're gun shy," says Coburn. "We're erring on the side of intelligent caution waiting on the lobster industry, the FDA, someone to tell us there's nothing to worry about. If [the FDA] issued an advisory tomorrow saying, 'False alarm, we goofed,' we'd put Maines back on the menu as soon as we could get our hands on them.
"It's tough enough right now," he adds. "It's really hard to keep one's credibility and integrity in place with this down economy. We don't need a PR black eye."
The FDA couldn't clarify and reissue its advisory fast enough. Until it does, the misunderstanding that lobster meat is toxic will linger in consumers' minds.