Nearly a month into the Louisiana Department of Health's enforcement of a new shrimp and crawfish labeling law for food establishments, more than 150 companies across the state were cited for not disclosing imported seafood to customers.
About 75 violations were at restaurants across southeastern Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and towns in between, which had imported shrimp and crawfish on site but did not have it labeled on menus, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. There were no violations for restaurants in Lafayette Parish but two restaurants in the metro area were cited. More than a dozen restaurants in the Lake Charles area were also cited. Other cities on the list included Bossier City and Shreveport.
Restaurant owners who discussed their violations painted a picture of how they are being affected by the new law and sometimes the inability to get local supplies in dealing with menu disclosures.
One restaurant said it was using Louisiana crawfish in meals but got cited because it had a package of Chinese crawfish in the freezer as a back-up against running out, while one said that a supplier sent it Chinese crawfish by mistake. Another ran into confusion as to whether domestic shrimp sent overseas to be processed is then considered imported.
Some Cajun and Creole food restaurant owners in Baton Rouge and New Orleans said the seasonal availability of Gulf-caught shrimp and Louisiana crawfish causes them to bounce between using domestic and imported products — making it difficult to track those changes on menus where imports are to be identified. Restaurants without menus must post their use of imports for the public to see.
The Louisiana Department of Health conducted more than 3,200 routine inspections of full-service restaurants between Sept. 1 and Sept. 27. The department inspects more than 32,000 annually.
As health inspections were conducted, inspectors also were on the lookout for violations of the state disclosure law that went into effect Sept. 1. The agency didn't have information on how many of the 3,200 restaurants serve shrimp and crawfish and were in compliance, but said 154 were cited for violations. A violation of the shrimp and crawfish labeling law is considered a non-critical violation and there isn't a fine associated with it.
If a restaurant has at least five non-critical violations, it is scheduled for a re-inspection, otherwise it would be checked again during a routine inspection. If the business is still out of compliance during the next inspection it could be subject to a formal compliance order.
"We expect as the Louisiana Department of Health process continues, the establishments will better understand the process and compliance," Stan Harris, chief executive officer of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said in a statement.
At Mason's Grill in Baton Rouge, the restaurant switches between imported and domestic crawfish through the year depending on availability, the owner said, and was among those cited for not disclosing imported shrimp and crawfish on its menu.
A health inspector noted on Sept. 18 that the restaurant had Chinese crawfish on site.
Mike Alfandre, owner of Mason's Grill, said that he sells local product when it's available.
"At the time of the inspection, I had Louisiana crawfish that was being used — and a closed case of Chinese crawfish because domestic was not available when I placed the order so they sent me the Chinese kind," Alfrandre said. "I was holding on to the Chinese crawfish in case I ran out and needed something, but there's no issue with getting local shrimp," he said.
Alfandre said he didn't put a temporary sticker on his menu to notify customers because "it looks tacky" and the restaurant had its menu done recently, costing thousands of dollars. Sometimes there is a limited supply of Louisiana seafood, he said.
"I think they passed the law without getting everybody involved. I don't think the wholesalers were ready," Alfandre said. "Hopefully all the dealers and wholesalers will get their act together and there will be enough to go around and not just during crawfish season."
Substituting Chinese crawfish in a pinch is not something that Michael Boudreaux, a top executive at Adrian's, a Cajun restaurant in Baton Rouge, said he would do, but the restaurant has relied on foreign shrimp.
"I always serve Louisiana crawfish; I won't serve anything else. If they don't have it we'll take it off the menu," Boudreaux said, noting that with imported shrimp there isn't a major difference in taste between domestic and imported.
Adrian's was cited for not labeling imported shrimp on its menu on Sept. 12, but will be updating menus soon, he said.
"I wish we could sell Louisiana seafood all the time but it's not always available. There's too much demand and there's not enough of it," he said.
For Piccadilly, the cafeteria-style restaurant chain headquartered in Baton Rouge, labeling the origin of seafood is routine. It already does so for catfish in Mississippi, which is required to be differentiated between farm-raised and river caught.
But the way it disclosed imported shrimp and crawfish at its Sherwood location in Baton Rouge was not sufficient for the Department of Health, according to the company.
"We typically use a mix, some is imported and some is local, it just depends on the availability," said Max Jordan, spokesman for Piccadilly.
Piccadilly had a disclosure sign near its menu board from which customers order.
"We did have it posted as per the guidelines in all of our Louisiana restaurants, but the inspector requested that we change the format for the notice."
In New Orleans, about a dozen restaurants were issued violations of the labeling law in September.
At one fusion Cajun- and Korean-style restaurant, the violation was the result of a mistake by a seafood vendor, the owner said.
Chef Lenora Chong, owner of Morrow's on St. Claude, said that there was a mix-up and she was sent Chinese crawfish.
"We use Gulf shrimp and domestic crawfish all the time; my vendor did not have any domestic crawfish," Chong said. "It was a single box of imported crawfish, the box came and we did not use it because there is clearly a difference in texture and flavor. I pride myself on delivering quality."
Morrow's was using Gulf shrimp at the time of the inspection, she said.
For another New Orleans restaurant, its violation revolved around a complicated issue, the owner said. The Health Department late Monday reversed its position that led to the violation.
SoBou, a self-described elevated Creole restaurant in the French Quarter, was cited on Sept. 12 for not disclosing imported shrimp. The restaurant, its wholesaler and local packer all said that the shrimp served is caught off the coast of Louisiana and sometimes processed in Vietnam, with documentation that shows its country of origin as the U.S.
"For as many years as we can count, Commander’s Family of Restaurant has purchased our seafood from certified seafood companies, having a strong relationship with New Orleans Fish House," according to a statement from SoBou.
"We can understand the confusion because while all of our seafood is locally caught and most of our packages are processed in Houma, some Louisiana seafood coming from Louisiana waters are hand-peeled in Vietnam," the statement continued. "We appreciate the vigilance with respect to this law about the labeling of Louisiana seafood as we are champions of Louisiana seafood and have been leaders in this our entire careers."
The New Orleans Fish House, which supplies seafood to SoBou, does sell "a small amount" of imported shrimp to customers who buy it, but most of its sales are Gulf shrimp.
"The processing of the (SoBou) shrimp is done in Vietnam since it's done by hand," said Cliff Hall, vice president at the New Orleans Fish House, a restaurant supplier of seafood. "The restaurant has to put the country of origin, it doesn't say anything about processing."
Jensen Tuna, the supplier and processor for the New Orleans Fish House, is facing a labor shortage for those willing to hand-peel and de-vein shrimp at its Houma location, Hall said.
"We do process shrimp but we don't have enough labor to do it by hand so we have to take the rest and ship it out in order to be processed," said Hai Cao, spokesperson Jensen Tuna, which buys directly from fishermen at the docks in Louisiana. "We are in a really difficult situation; you don't want a competitor processing shrimp for you. We do not want to mislead anyone, we're all about traceability. The shrimp are Louisiana shrimp."
Last week, under the new shrimp and crawfish labeling law, the Louisiana Department of Health initially considered SoBou's shrimp to be imported because disclosure was not about country of origin but point of origin tied to federal regulations.
As of Monday afternoon, the Department of Health decided to reverse that decision entirely to align itself with the intent of the state law.
"We ran into a few situations where certain seafood products were caught in U.S. waters but were sent directly to other countries for processing; it was a little confusing on our end," said Justin Gremillion, chief sanitarian specialty operations at the Louisiana Department of Health. "The law says the country of origin, we did reverse our stance but the violations that were written still stand. This is just one scenario where two countries were listed on the label."
The Department of Health expects to train its inspectors to note the difference in the field in the coming days.
The sponsor of the shrimp and crawfish disclosure law, State Rep. Jerry Gisclair, of District 54, doesn't see an issue with the enforcement of the law so far.
"We're not trying to stop restaurants from selling imported products; we just wanted to identify them," Gisclair said. "We're talking millions and millions of pounds of shrimp in freezers and when the law kicked in they are scrambling but an imported shrimp is imported."
If a restaurant is selling domestic shrimp and crawfish during the season but imported products in the off-season they can just take the sign down. Gisclair himself worked on shrimp boats with his family as a teenager. This year, he's heard from fellow shrimp boat operators.
"I've spoken to local shrimpers and they've been receiving calls from numerous restaurants hoping to get more products," he said.
Health inspections can be searched by food establishment, not type of violation, on the state's website.
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