Lawmakers Pass Sweeping Changes for Foreign Seafood

BATON ROUGE (Louisiana Illuminator) — In an effort to protect Louisiana’s struggling domestic seafood industry, state lawmakers on Wednesday passed sweeping changes to public health codes that will affect thousands of restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores and other establishments across the state. They also include every state agency and school district that serves food. 

Senate Bill 166, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, received final passage with overwhelming bipartisan support from both chambers. It is now headed to the office of Gov. Jeff Landry, who is expected to sign it into law. 

The proposal includes a variety of changes to strengthen the state’s seafood labeling laws with new prohibitions against misleading marketing and new requirements for restaurants and other eateries that serve shrimp and crawfish. The new laws will carry heavier fines for violators and assign new enforcement powers and duties to the Louisiana Department of Health and state Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

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An influx of cheap foreign catch, particularly shrimp and crawfish, has flooded the market in Louisiana, and 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, according to the Louisiana Shrimp Association. The effects are threatening the survival of a local industry and unique Cajun culture while also potentially 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. 

Connick wrote his bill based on recommendations from the Legislature’s Seafood Safety Task Force, which has been studying ways to regulate imported seafood without drawing too much opposition from the restaurant lobby. 

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Most notable in the bill is a requirement that will apply to all restaurants and establishments that serve unpackaged seafood. A state law adopted in 2019 requires restaurants to indicate on their menus or on a sign if they serve imported shrimp or crawfish, but many restaurants have not complied with it — whether knowingly or unknowingly — and have faced no consequences. The new law will differ in that all food establishments must “clearly display the country of origin in a manner that is easily visible to the consumer.” 

Restaurants will have to say explicitly whether their seafood is from the U.S. or another country. This provision should help limit vague or misleading dish descriptions on menus. Furthermore, proprietors that still choose to serve foreign catch must include a disclaimer that states: “Some items served at this establishment may contain imported seafood. Ask for more information.”

The state health department will be responsible for enforcing the menu law and can issue fines even if a restaurant has never been previously cited. This is meant to fix a problem under existing statutes that prevented health inspectors from levying fines even after recording more than 2,600 violations since 2019. Health officials will also have to create a mechanism to allow the public to report suspected violations. 

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A first offense will carry a fine of $200 to $500 or a warning. A second offense will carry a fine of $500 to $1,000. A third offense will carry a fine of $1,000 to $2,000. 

Another aspect of the bill applies to any seafood wholesaler or retail food establishment. It prohibits the use of any misleading packaging or marketing that uses Louisiana-related images, phrases, colors or styles for any foreign seafood products that are not produced or caught in Louisiana. Foreign companies can continue to use such marketing if they indicate the seafood’s country of origin on the front of the package.

“They’ve been selling their shrimp on the back of our culture,” Louisiana Shrimp Association President Acy Cooper said in a phone interview.

During an April 24 committee hearing on the bill, Connick displayed enlarged photographs of common seafood products that can be found in almost any Louisiana grocery store. One was a photo of Boudreaux’s Brand frozen crawfish tails. Everything about the product suggests it’s from Louisiana, from its use of a classic Cajun name to the words “Wild Caught” in large lettering across the label. At the bottom of the label, it lists a Westwego address and a logo in the shape of Louisiana for its distributor, Gulf Marine Products Co. 

Connick then displayed a photo of the back of the package and pointed to small lettering that stated: “Product of China.” 

“So they’re using our label, our name, our image, our culture, but it’s Chinese shrimp or it’s Chinese crawfish,” Connick said.

Shrimp laid out on ice displays at grocery stores are often taken out of similar frozen packages that could be from a foreign country. The catch might be advertised as “Wild Caught Gulf Shrimp,” but it often deliberately fails to specify which gulf it came from. Connick’s bill requires a sign on ice displays to specify the country of origin. 

The state commissioner of agriculture will be responsible for enforcing the new packaging and marketing statute and will have the authority to levy fines and issue orders shutting down further distribution or sale of the violating products. 

Under the marketing law, a first offense will carry a fine up to $15,000, a second offense will carry a fine up to $25,000, and any subsequent offenses will carry fines up to $50,000.

Lastly, the bill will require all local school districts, state agencies and state institutions that serve seafood to use only domestic shrimp and crawfish. 

Once enacted, the changes will take effect on Jan. 1, 2025. 

Lawmakers are also considering separate legislation that would increase licensing fees for seafood importers and use the revenue to fund more testing.

By Wesley Muller

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