Louisiana lawmakers aim to fix shrimp industry crisis caused by cheap imports

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(The Center Square) — A legislative task force convened this week to brainstorm ways to address a crisis in the Louisiana shrimp industry brought on by a flood of imported seafood.

The Legislature’s Seafood Safety Task Force met on Wednesday to review state policies for imported seafood in the wake of an ongoing shrimp crisis forcing many Louisiana shrimpers to stay on the dock.

Gov. John Bel Edwards last month requested an emergency disaster declaration from the federal government at the behest of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, which has raised the alarm about the safety of imported shrimp that have driven dockside prices below $1 per pound. The Southern Shrimp Alliance made the same requests for disaster declarations from governors in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas.

The task force, initially created in 2009, was revived with Senate Resolution 159, sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting.

The Louisiana Shrimp Association has repeatedly highlighted how imports of 1.8 billion pounds of farm-raised foreign shrimp have created a record-high global supply and rock bottom prices, despite concerns over harmful antibiotics, chemicals and toxins that put consumers at risk of food-borne illnesses.

The association contends most Louisiana restaurants serve imported shrimp and other seafood but do not clearly label it as required by state law. Despite 2,671 violations since the law was enacted in 2019, the state has not imposed fines available through a separate law.

State health officials told the task force that limited funding has also restricted testing of imported seafood, with just 11 inspections in 2023. A lack of oversight on the federal level prompted Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves to introduce legislation in August to provide more FDA funding for testing.

Along with Edwards’ request for an emergency disaster declaration, he penned a letter to President Biden last month “asking for additional funding for testing of imported shrimp by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as support for random testing, seizure and destruction of shrimp that contain banned substances, and implementation of a quota on the amount of shrimp imported from other countries,” the governor wrote in a letter to Louisiana Shrimp Association.

The task force on Wednesday discussed the possibility of sending health inspectors to more the state’s major ports to improve testing before products reach the state’s 58 distributors, but state health officials noted that would require cooperation with federal authorities that control the ports.

Mills suggested officials could possibly intercept transport trucks on state roadways before they reach distributors. Other suggestions centered on adopting a law similar to Texas that bans the use of imported shrimp as bait.

A 2020 study by the LSU Agricultural Center that tested imported shrimp from locations in the Baton Rouge area found prohibited antibiotics in 70% of samples, findings that further substantiated prior studies.

The task force meeting followed several bills or resolutions introduced in the 2023 legislative session aimed at addressing foreign imports, from increasing the fine in the labeling law to $1,000 to resolutions asking Congress to ban shrimp and crawfish imports and for the FDA and Louisiana Department of Health to improve testing.

While multiple resolutions were adopted, the increased labeling fines for restaurants and retailers failed in committee amid pushback from the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

The Louisiana Seafood Safety Task Force is expected to meet again in October.

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