The next time you sit down to a shrimp po-boy or some crawfish étouffée in a Louisiana restaurant, you have the right to know if the seafood you’re eating is imported. Louisiana House Bill 335, passed and signed into law June 19, mandates that restaurants serving foreign shrimp or crawfish reveal this information to consumers by posting it on their menus. In the absence of menus, a restaurant must post it on visible signage.
“This was our second attempt to get something like this passed in the last four or five years,” says veteran Louisiana shrimper Lance Nacio, owner of Anna Marie Shrimp Company in Montegut. “It’s time people understood more about what they’re really getting.”
Grocery stores and fish markets are already required to specify country of origin and whether or not a product is farm-raised or wild-caught, but until now restaurants have escaped such notification. American Shrimp Processors Association Executive Director David Veal says the new Louisiana law could be a model for other states.
“There certainly is talk in the trade that this may spread to many of the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic coast states,” Veal says. “You would be hard pressed to walk into a restaurant and get a straight answer about whether shrimp is domestic or not.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration FishWatch, the United States imports more than 80% of the seafood Americans eat. Top seafood exporters to the U.S., according to NOAA, are China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador. Much of imported seafood is farm-raised, often in crowded conditions as the aquaculture industry tries to meet the world’s growing demand for seafood. The global industry has risen steadily as supply in international waters becomes stagnant due to overfishing.
However, imported seafood is inspected at U.S. borders at a rate of about 1%. In the European Union, the rate is closer to 50%, says Veal.
That means a lot of chemicals not allowed in U.S. seafood manages to sneak in. Independent studies, including one conducted by an LSU AgCenter Fisheries specialist, show the presence of antibiotic and microbial residue in imported shrimp. The AgCenter study documented levels of these chemicals on imported shrimp in markets and grocery stores in Baton Rouge during winter 2016 and spring 2017.
Popular across the U.S., shrimp is the single largest type of seafood imported. Americans consume 1.5 billion pounds of shrimp a year, with only about 100 million pounds coming from the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Biloxi-based American Shrimp Processors Association.
It makes it almost impossible for American shrimpers to compete on price, says Veal. Government subsidies in foreign countries, along with cheaper labor and less regulation, have depressed the prices for shrimp for years, he says. Gulf of Mexico shrimpers like Nacio and others have been part of a movement that started after Hurricane Katrina to brand their wild-caught American shrimp as higher quality. They’ve been working for years to demand a fair price for a boutique product.
But better quality isn’t what the new Louisiana law is about.
Previous attempts to send a fair trade-type bill through the House Commerce Committee failed, says Rep. Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, D-Larose. Conversely, the new law speaks to the possibility of foreign seafood carrying health risks, including high levels of veterinary antibodies commonly used in foreign aquaculture.
“I tried to do this bill before through Commerce, and I was not prepared for the army of lobbyists that came after me,” says Gisclair. “We looked at issues such as the number of antibiotics and other chemicals found in foreign seafood, and the lack of inspections at the federal level of seafood coming into the United States. We requested a hearing through the Health and Welfare Committee, and that made the difference.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards publicly signed the bill into law at The Shack seafood restaurant in Houma, surrounded by about 150 shrimpers and their supporters. Notification and enforcement is now up to the Office of Public Health’s restaurant inspection division, which, according to Gisclair, is expected to give restaurants a reasonable time to comply.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association would not return calls for comment about the bill’s passing. Gisclair says the LRA, whose statewide chapters are comprised of both local and chain restaurants, initially opposed the proposed legislation, but ended up working with lawmakers about the size of the font required on new menu postings and signage.
Whether or not seafood suppliers see an uptick in domestic seafood orders is still to be seen, says Rob Walker, general manager of Louisiana Seafood Exchange Baton Rouge. The company sells both domestic and imported seafood to restaurants, and so far, there’s been no change as a result of the new law, he says.
“I’m going to hazard a guess that most restaurants will not know it’s a law, and some won’t abide by it anyway,” Walker says. “But, the overwhelming majority of imported shrimp to this country is bought outside of the five Gulf states.”
Walker says that it’s generally agreed upon that the taste of Gulf shrimp is superior to imported shrimp, but that restaurants sometimes can’t beat the price of certain imported product dispositions. A good example, he says, is peeled, deveined, tail-on shrimp sold in an extremely consistent size. The labor required to produce such a product would make the domestic equivalent cost twice as much, Walker says.
As for crawfish, the playing field of late has been a little more level. During the 2019 crawfish season, crawfish tail prices ended the season at $11.50 a pound, where in years past, they were between $9 and $9.50 when they went into freezers at the end of the season, Walker says.
Gisclair and advocates of the bill say that restaurants and consumers will have to decide for themselves about importance they place on product provenance. And, of course, price will be a factor.
“We’re not telling restaurants you cannot serve imported seafood,” says Gisclair. “But I have the right to know what I’m putting in my body.”