Shrimp from Asia. (Photo credit: Faiuokamei Ngau, Creative Commons)
Health inspectors have recorded more than 2,600 violations of a 2019 Louisiana law that requires restaurants and other food establishments to indicate on their menus if they’re selling imported shrimp or crawfish, but the state hasn’t levied a single fine for those violations since the law took effect.
It’s a problem local fishermen have been calling attention to for years. Foreign seafood has become so cheap that it is almost ubiquitous. According to the Louisiana Shrimp Association, most restaurants in the state have chosen to serve imported shrimp and crawfish to patrons who are either oblivious to it or 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.
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.
Seafood is the most common type of imported food linked to outbreaks, and the rate of imported seafood outbreaks is increasing, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.
Louisiana Shrimp Association President Acy Cooper said shrimping is a way of life passed down through generations. It offered decent pay at one time, enough to provide for a family. But massive seafood imports, mostly from Asia, have significantly undercut domestic shrimp prices over the last decade, he said.
“We definitely got to get something done, or we’re going to have a lot of people going bankrupt,” Cooper said, “and I’m one of them.”
Cooper and other shrimpers have urged state officials to crack down on seafood misrepresentation, which occurs when restaurants or food establishments either deliberately obscure or simply fail to disclose the origin of their catch.
The labeling law requires restaurants to either indicate on their menus if they’re selling imported shrimp or crawfish. They can also post an 18-inch by 18-inch sign that says their fare is sourced from foreign waters. The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) conducts routine sanitary inspections to check if restaurants comply with the law.
Many are not, and they have so far gotten away without any consequences. LDH has issued 2,671 citations for violations of the labeling law since it took effect in 2019. As of May 30, the state has issued no fines.
When the issue came up at a legislative committee hearing in April, Rep. Mack Cormier, D-Belle Chasse, pointed to a statute that says first-time violations carry a $50 fine.
However, the state health department doesn’t have jurisdiction to issue those fines, according to spokesperson Kevin Litten. The problem stems from a patchwork of statutes and administrative regulations between the health department and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).
The 2019 labeling law contains nothing about fines. It simply gave state health officials the authority to inspect and cite businesses for shrimp and crawfish labeling violations. The law is under Title 40, which encompasses the state’s public health statutes for which violations carry civil law penalties, Litten said.
Also, LDH classifies infractions of the labeling law as “non-critical” violations, meaning they don’t pose an immediate threat to public health. Businesses are afforded the opportunity to correct any non-critical violations before their next inspection.
Under existing rules, a restaurant would have to violate the labeling law five times before LDH could take action by charging a $150 reinspection fee, Litten said.
Cormier’s reference to $50 fines comes from a separate law that took effect back in 2008. It states: “No owner or manager of a restaurant that sells imported crawfish or shrimp shall misrepresent to the public, either verbally, on a menu, or on signs displayed on the premises, that the crawfish or shrimp is domestic.”
That law includes fines of $50 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for any subsequent offenses.
The 2008 law exists under Title 56, known as the Wildlife and Fisheries code. Infractions carry criminal law penalties and are enforced through the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which has a division of law enforcement agents.
However, not all of the statutes in Title 56 fall under the purview of Wildlife and Fisheries, according to its general counsel, Cole Garrett.
In 2013, the Louisiana Legislature transferred a broad swath of statutes in Title 56 and placed them under the purview of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which doesn’t have a law enforcement arm, in the lieutenant governor’s office. Apparently, the 2008 law that spells out the $50 fines was swept up in that transfer and is no longer the responsibility of Wildlife and Fisheries, Garrett said.
The text of the law seems to allow local district attorneys to prosecute the violators based on complaints from the public, Garrett added. The statute specifically assigns jurisdiction to the district attorney for the area where the offending restaurant is located.
“It’s bizarre that it’s written that way,” he said. “I think that that’s probably what the legislative intent was.”
Garrett assisted Cormier in drafting a bill that would’ve given enforcement back to Wildlife and Fisheries and increased a first-offense fine to $1,000. However, the House Committee on Natural Resources rejected the proposal.
At that committee hearing, Louisiana Restaurant Association President Stan Harris told lawmakers the health department wasn’t issuing fines because restaurants are following the law. No one at the meeting was provided data on the number of violations that had been issued.
LDH later provided numbers to the Illuminator showing the department had issued 204 citations for shrimp and crawfish labeling violations as of May 30. The number is on track to be lower than the peak of 757 reached in 2020.
Litten said violation numbers tend to improve over time after businesses are cited during inspections and adjust to comply with the law.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has opposed bills that would create fines and other restrictions dealing with imported shrimp labeling, though not all restaurant owners share that view.
Conrad Chura, owner of the New Orleans eatery Wakin’ Bakin’, pays extra to be able to serve domestic Louisiana shrimp and agrees with penalizing those who are ignoring a law that other restaurants are following.
“It’s mostly about honesty and not false advertising,” Chura said. “As a customer, you have a right to know where your food comes from.”
Cooper, who is also a restaurant owner, said the legislature needs to fix the patchwork of laws and assign the proper agency to enforce them. Until they do that, restaurants in Louisiana will continue to serve mostly foreign shellfish, and local fishermen will continue to be outpriced, he said.
“It’s a big problem,” Cooper said. “If they’re not forced to, they’re not going to do it… and Louisiana shrimp, as you know it, ain’t gonna be here.”
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