Louisiana officials aim to address imported seafood problem

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(The Center Square) — State and federal officials on Monday discussed various ways Louisiana can address a flood of foreign shrimp imports tainted with antibiotics that are devastating the industry.

The third meeting of the revived Seafood Safety Task Force in Baton Rouge featured suggestions and perspectives on the issue from Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, Republican Congressman Garret Graves, and a representative of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, among others.

The meeting centered on numerous issues — from testing to labeling to coordination between states and the federal government — tied to the imports of foreign shrimp that have driven down prices with drastic impacts for a $4 billion state seafood industry that employs about 50,000.

“This is a huge problem, it’s a problem not limited to just seafood,” Graves said. “This is something we see across the board with virtually every product.”

With seafood, some countries including China subsidize production using illegal chemicals in an attempt to shut down the U.S. industry, an issue that’s further complicated in Louisiana by recent hurricanes and water intrusion that have decimated shrimping communities.

On the federal level, lawmakers recently created a bipartisan Seafood Caucus in Washington to focus on the factors driving the dynamic, secured $250 million in fishery disaster assistance, and filed legislation to bolster imported shrimp testing.

Other efforts have included 10s of millions in USDA purchases of domestic shrimp for food programs and laws to crack down on illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing by foreign countries, including China.

Graves suggested Louisiana may be able to develop a cooperative agreement with the federal government to help bolster testing, similar to a Louisiana fisheries enforcement agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Currently, only about 2% of seafood imports to the U.S. are tested. In Louisiana, the state health department has tested only 14 samples from commercial wholesale distributors, hindered in part by state statute that sets fees at $100 a year. Those tests have not turned up any shrimp tainted with antibiotics, but there’s no fine or penalties if they do, health officials said.

State labeling laws requiring the identification of imports have also been lacking, with thousands of violations but no penalties for companies that mislead customers.

Nungesser suggested shifting testing and enforcement to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board in his office, with the authority to levy heavy fines for violators. He also pointed to the need for federal legislation to add inspection fees for imported seafood to help fund increased inspections, as well as a need to address water diversion plans that will impact the industry.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain noted that other countries test imported seafood at a much higher rate than the U.S., and food that doesn’t pass is destroyed. In the U.S., the food is sent back and is often imported through a different port through a practice known as “port shopping.”

“What we need to have … is rapid, on-site testing,” he said.

Strain said federal food labeling laws need to be reformed to better inform consumers about where the seafood originates, coupled with more public education about the health risks of imported seafood, which officials said can make consumers resistant to antibiotics.

Strain suggested a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the pork industry could set a precedent Louisiana could follow to impose more stringent regulations on imported seafood.

“We can set the standards for all shrimp, all crawfish, all crabs,” he said, noting that big changes will need state appropriations set aside for inevitable lawsuits to follow. “We know right away the agencies will get sued.”

Other discussions centered on the need for Louisiana to coordinate with other states to push for changes on the federal level and more public awareness to build support.

The latter, Graves said, will take a concerted effort in Washington, where many states have no vested interest in the issue and lobbyists for the restaurant industry “love the cheap imported stuff … because they get to make more profit on the product they sell.”

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