As a shrimper, Kim Chauvin has certain standards when she eats seafood in restaurants. She also has questions.
“I always ask where the seafood is from, whether it's domestic or imported, and a lot of times the servers look like deer in the headlights,” said Chauvin, who runs a family seafood business in the Terrebonne Parish bayou town of Dulac.
“They don’t know," she said. "I ask to see a manager, and they’ll say they don’t know. That’s when I ask them to show me the box it came in. I want to know.”
For shrimp and crawfish, two staples of the Louisiana table, restaurants will soon be required to provide that information right up front.
On Friday, state lawmakers gave final legislative passage to a bill that will require Louisiana restaurants to disclose whether the shrimp and crawfish they serve come from another country.
The bill won unanimous approval in both houses of the Legislature, and Gov. John Bel Edwards has indicated he will sign it into law (update, Edwards signed it June 19 at the Houma seafood restaurant the Shack).
Facing increasing market pressure from lower-priced, imported seafood, Louisiana fishermen and seafood processors have for years sought such a measure to differentiate their product. This time, advocates framed the proposal as a health and consumer protection issue, zeroing in on concerns over the production methods of imported seafood.
The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose, the son of a commercial shrimper whose coastal district is lined with fishing docks.
His bill states that imported seafood "may pose a health risk” due to “antibiotics, radiation, and numerous toxins found in seafood products, including but not limited to crawfish and shrimp, that originate outside of the United States.”
The measure requires restaurants to list whether the seafood they serve comes from a foreign country next to the name of the dish on their menus. Restaurants that don't use menus would have to post a sign or have staff explain that the seafood comes from another country. Restaurants that don't comply would be in violation of the state sanitary code.
Grocery stores are already required to disclose this information under federal law.
The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, reports that roughly 90% of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. are imported, and the majority are farm-raised. The group lists China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and Ecuador as leading suppliers of shrimp.
The methods and oversight of such overseas producers have long been a concern for environmental and human rights advocates.
Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, released a 2014 study documenting widespread fraud and misrepresentation of shrimp in the American marketplace.
“With shrimp, it is almost impossible to know what you are getting,” the report concluded. “High demand has led to many environmental and human rights abuses in the fishing, farming and processing of shrimp.”
A 2011 study found that as little as 2 percent of all seafood imported to the U.S is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.
Supporters of the restaurant disclosure requirement hope that given more information, consumers can make more informed choices.
Chauvin’s family operates fishing boats, a shrimp processing facility, a retail market and a small eatery. She is deeply invested in the issue and minces no words about her support for the labeling requirement.
“Most people in our area think every restaurant has local seafood, and that’s a lie,” Chauvin said. “Too many restaurants just don’t care. But now they’re going to have to care, because they’ll have to label if the crawfish in that crawfish pie is imported or domestic, if the shrimp in their etouffee is imported or domestic.”
Early in the legislative session, the Louisiana Restaurant Association urged its members to oppose the bill. In a letter circulated to restaurateurs in April, the group described the bill as an unfunded mandate that would “burden your restaurant and confuse your guests.”
A spokeswoman for the LRA said this week the organization would not comment on the issue.
Gisclair, however, indicated lawmakers had worked with the LRA on the bill during the legislative process.
As state representatives took their final vote on the measure Friday, Gisclair said the amended bill addressed “issues we worked out with LRA to make changes with sizes to fonts of (lettering on) menus of restaurants."
The measure, as passed, requires the foreign origin notice to appear in the “same size, font and shade (of lettering) as the product being offered.”
Louisiana leads the nation in shrimp harvests, and the state produces practically the entire American crawfish harvest, according to fisheries data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Shrimp brought in $137.7 million in 2016, according to the latest data available. Crawfish accounted for $11.9 million that year.
The bill has been cheered by many Louisiana fishermen, who have watched the prices commanded by their local catch dwindle for years in the face of frozen seafood imported from abroad.
However, David Veal, director of the American Shrimp Processors Association, a Mobile, Alabama-based trade group that supported the labeling bill, downplayed any immediate economic impact the new rules might bring.
“My guess is people who don’t mind ordering imported shrimp will continue to do what they’ve been doing," he said, "and that most restaurants won’t change what they do either."
Advocate staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.
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