BR.shrimplawbiz.adv.02.JPG (copy)

Louisiana restaurants now must disclose if seafood comes from the state or is imported.

Next time you go out to eat, you may notice something different on the menu. It’s not a new dish, but a bit of new information. Restaurants in Louisiana now must disclose if that shrimp or crawfish is locally harvested … or imported. State lawmakers unanimously passed a bill in June requiring restaurants to state on their menus — or on a sign placed prominently near the door, if they don’t have menus — if their cooked or prepared shellfish is of foreign origin.

Naturally, this comes as good news to local seafood harvesters, who in recent years have seen competition from Chinese crawfish and Vietnamese and Argentinian shrimp, which possibly aren't grown or harvested with safety standards required of domestic shellfish. Of particular concern is the presence of antibiotics and steroids. In the first two-thirds of 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused dozens of imports “for reasons related to veterinary drug residues,” according to the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

The law already requires shellfish packaging to disclose its country of origin — but that hasn’t stopped some unscrupulous manufacturers from mislabeling dubious seafood imports as locally caught. A recent study by the University of North Carolina found that one-third of the shrimp in that state was mislabeled as locally harvested, and a seafood company in South Carolina was found by federal authorities to have sold 200,000 pounds of crabmeat that was falsely labeled as local.

Until now, Louisiana restaurants haven’t been bound by labeling. Diners might assume that just because a seafood shack is near the swamp its crawfish came from Louisiana bayous, or that a sign vaguely promising “Gulf seafood” means that all the seafood on the plate came from the Gulf of Mexico. The new law closes that loophole.

For those who think this isn’t a big problem — much less a health concern — consider this: 90% of shrimp consumed by Americans comes from foreign countries, and much of it isn’t wild-caught but grown under aquacultural conditions that include antibiotics and other pollutants. Shrimp (fresh and frozen) are by far the most oft-imported seafood in the country. More than a billion pounds came into the U.S. from south and central Asia in 2017, according to a study by the fisheries department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In an investigative series titled “Untested Waters,” WVUE-TV’s Lee Zurik found the FDA only tested 550 samples of imported shrimp during a year when the U.S. imported more than 1.2 billion pounds of the shellfish.

If health concerns don’t convince you of the new law’s significance, this will: Louisiana seafood just tastes better. Anyone who’s had a mealy forieign shrimp or tasted crawfish meat with the consistency of wet newspaper can tell you that.

Will the new law spur Louisiana restaurants to buy more local seafood? We don’t know. Some chefs take pride in using only local catch, whether it’s shellfish or fin fish. Now, at least, Louisiana diners (including visitors) will have the information they need to make a clear choice when it comes to where to eat.

For us, it’s no contest: Even if it costs more, Louisiana seafood is the way to go.

This is a commentary from Gambit, produced independently from reporters at the paper.