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Task force looks into Louisiana’s inability to enforce its own seafood labeling laws

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Task force looks into Louisiana’s inability to enforce its own seafood labeling laws

Sep 28, 2023 | 7:44 am ET
By Wesley Muller
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Task force looks into Louisiana’s inability to enforce its own seafood labeling laws
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Shrimp from Asia. (Photo credit: Faiuokamei Ngau, Creative Commons)

Louisiana’s failure to enforce its own seafood labeling laws has prompted one state lawmaker to revive a long-dormant panel. It met Wednesday for the first time in years to address a struggling domestic fishery and the increasing health threats from imported foreign catch.

The Louisiana Legislature created the Seafood Safety Task Force in 2009. The following year, its members proposed additional funding for the Louisiana Department of Health to test more imported seafood. They also created a Louisiana seafood marketing campaign to promote local catch, among other things. 

Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who chairs the panel, said the state paused the promotion campaign following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, and the task force eventually went “dormant”

Facing virtually the same problems with imported seafood more than a decade later, Mills revived the task force during this year’s legislative session.

“I think this is a crisis,” Mills said. 

Only about 10% of seafood consumed in America is domestic. The overwhelming majority, even in Louisiana, comes from Asia or South America, according to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.

Foreign seafood has become so cheap that it is almost ubiquitous. According to the Louisiana Shrimp Association, most restaurants in the state choose to serve imported shrimp and crawfish to patrons who are either oblivious to it or mistakenly believe they’re eating local fare. 

The influx of foreign-farmed catch is decimating a domestic industry and unique Louisiana culture while also increasing the risk of introducing harmful contaminants into the food supply, proponents say. 

A 2020 LSU Agricultural Center study tested a variety of imported shrimp purchased from multiple locations in the Baton Rouge area and detected banned veterinary drugs in more than two-thirds of the samples. Researchers noted the prohibited chemicals can have severe adverse effects on humans. 

Despite those findings, a report published in Environmental Science and Technology found the federal government only tests roughly 2% of the foreign catch that arrives at U.S. shipping ports, whereas the European Union inspects 50%, Japan tests 18% and Canada samples 15%.

With limited funding, the state health department tests a minuscule portion of seafood imported into Louisiana. An agency official told the task force it tested only 11 samples this year. 

Mills floated the idea of putting health inspectors at the state’s major ports to try to test the foreign catch before it is disseminated to dozens of distributors across the state. There are 58 permitted distributors of imported seafood in Louisiana. 

Louisiana health officials said the federal government has jurisdiction at the ports, though Mills said the state could look into some sort of cooperative endeavor agreement with federal authorities or a way to inspect trucks on state roadways immediately outside the ports when they transport the catch to distributors. 

The task force also wants to consider ideas to revise the state’s current seafood labeling laws. 

Louisiana enacted a law back in 2008 that prohibits restaurant owners or managers from misrepresenting the origin of their shrimp or crawfish either verbally or on a menu. The law carries a $50 fine for a first offense, but the state has never enforced the statute. 

Another law, enacted in 2019, required restaurants to indicate on their menus or on a sign if they serve imported shrimp or crawfish. That law gave state health officials authority to inspect and cite businesses for those violations. Despite recording more than 2,600 violations since it took effect, the state hasn’t issued a single fine. 

Crawfish farmer J.B. Hanks pointed out to the task force that Texas has a law that prohibits the use of imported shrimp as bait, which Mills noted as another idea to add to the panel’s agenda. Imported shrimp is known to carry a so-called “white spot” virus that can quickly kill entire populations of the shellfish. It does not affect humans. 

The task force has not yet established a meeting schedule but will likely convene again in late October.

Correction: The Louisiana Department of Health has tested 11 samples of imported seafood this year. A previous version of this article mistakenly conflated sampling with inspecting.