In billboards, tourism brochures and travel Web sites, the red shells of crawfish are used as an enticing symbol of Louisiana, an edible representation of a unique place. Now, a pair of newly enacted state and federal laws are out to make sure consumers can tell if the crawfish they dig into actually came from Louisiana.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) program, requiring the packaging for all meats, fish and shellfish to include information for consumers about where the product originated. The law holds special significance for Louisiana crawfish farmers and processors, who for years have complained that cheaper, frozen Chinese imports are sometimes sold under brands and with labels using common Cajun names to create the impression the product is from Louisiana. Under the new USDA COOL measure, they now will have to be clearly labeled as “Product of China.”

“People in Louisiana as crawfish consumers have always been very much in support of local producers. But the trouble is they’ve been lied to and fooled by unethical businessmen, including some locals,” says Stephen Minvielle, director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association. “So we’re trying to make them come out from under the covers and make it clear what they’re really selling, and these two pieces of legislation will do that.”
Crawfish sold live and or boiled in their shells on premises are almost always locally produced, Minvielle says, but the issue gets much murkier when it comes to processed crawfish tails in the grocery freezer or the crawfish meat used in many restaurant dishes.

Louisiana crawfish producers and processors have long complained that Chinese crawfish dealers are using unfair trade practices to flood seafood markets and undercut the value of homegrown crawfish. The crawfish association also suggests imported crawfish pose a health risk from antibiotics used overseas to keep crawfish alive in polluted waters.

“Our ponds and crawfish have been tested repeatedly and no harmful substances have ever been found,” says association president David Savoy. “There is really no testing in China for banned substances.”

In addition to the new federal rule, state legislators enacted a new law making it illegal for a Louisiana restaurant to call crawfish or shrimp it serves as Louisiana-raised if it was produced elsewhere.

“What we’re telling people to do is ask before you eat,” says Minvielle. “People have a right to know where the crawfish dish he or she is buying comes from.”