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February 1, 2007
Column

Confronting Imposter Lobster

by Colin Woodard

Since the early 1990s, Europeans have been protecting their traditional products from imposters. By law, any bottle of champagne sold within the European Union must come from the Champagne region of France; a Parma ham must be made from Parma's cheese-rind-fed pigs; and only olives from the Greek town of Kalamata can be marketed as such. Someday, Europeans hope to convince the rest of us to protect these age-old "brands" as well.

Now Maine is trying to get in on the act as well.

For the past year, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council has been fighting back against so-called "Imposter Lobsters," both creatures posing as lobsters that aren't, and genuine lobsters and lobster products sold to consumers as "Maine lobster" but caught elsewhere.

"We think lobster from Maine should be identified as Maine lobster and things that aren't from Maine should not," says the MLPC's executive director, Kristen Millar. "There is tremendous cachet in the term Maine lobster and we're committed to protecting that asset."

In regard to American lobsters, the problem is, in a sense, the result of our own success. The Maine coast is so closely identified with lobsters that we've managed to co-opt an entire species. Scientists may identify them as American lobster, but for most Americans, homarus americanus is simply "Maine" lobster, even if it was caught in Massachusetts or Nova Scotia. Our lobster, like Parma's Parmesan cheese or cheddar cheese, has gone generic. The challenge for the MLPC will be putting this genie back in the bottle.

In an effort to do this, MLPC is offering dealers special tags that can be affixed to their lobster's claws and bear the words "Certified Maine Lobster," a phrase the council has trademarked. Since the program was introduced last August, dozens of dealers have joined in the hopes of capitalizing on the Maine brand.

According to Millar, there should be considerable benefits, despite lobster having been marketed as a commodity, not a brand, since time immemorial. MLPC market research indicates that most consumers think that all "Maine" lobster comes from Maine, and, as such, is a superior-tasting product. "The core of a successful strategy is to raise people's awareness of the situation, and in so doing, strengthen brand loyalty," she explains.

I'm all for letting consumers know which lobsters are coming from Maine, but not because I think they taste so different from their competitors. Sure, a summer softshell has a sweet taste that can't be beat, but virtually all of those are consumed in-state or exported to Canada for processing, returning to our market as a product of Canada. Cold water probably makes for a better tasting hardshell too, but the Gulf of Maine's no warmer over in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, our real rivals in the global marketplace; they've got those nice rocky bottom habitats to boot.

The real distinction is in the way in which our lobsters are caught. Our conservation laws are stricter than those prevailing in Massachusetts or in federal waters, keeping divers out of the water and keeping big breeders and juvenile lobsters in it, ensuring a healthy broodstock of big, exceedingly fecund females. Sustainable fisheries are rare these days, and more and more consumers are coming to favor products from the few that actually are.

The other imposters aren't really lobsters at all, but rather a two-inch long crustacean called a langostino. The little critters are farmed in Chile, and their meat costs about a fifth what American lobster meat does, which explains why franchise restaurants like Red Lobster have been eager to pass it off as "langostino lobster" on their menus. Maine lobstermen are already feeling the pinch: between April and September last year, the MLPC estimates langostino substitution cost fishermen $44 million in sales.

The restaurants argue that langostino are, in fact, species of lobster, pointing to the fact that their common name is "squat lobster." Taxonomists who study decapods disagree. Raphael Lemaitre of the Smithsonian Institution, a leading decapod taxonomist, says the three species at issue -- Cervimunida johni, Pleuroncodes monodon and Munida gregaria -- are not considered true lobsters by knowledgeable experts, regardless of common names.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the language on restaurant menus, has thus far failed to see the light. Last spring, the agency ruled that Rubio's, a California restaurant chain, could market "langostino lobster" burritos, following a lawsuit from consumers who felt they had been deceived. "By putting an inferior product with the name lobster on it, you are doing damage to the lobster label," explains Jake Ward, press secretary to Senator Olympia Snowe, who has asked the FDA to review its decision in September.

FDA spokesman failed to return calls asking for information on their decision-making process. In addition to being slow, it's apparently not particularly concerned about truth in seafood labeling. In December, the agency announced that makers of imitation crab can now simply market their artificially-flavored fish-and-starch paste as "crab-flavored seafood." Trident Seafoods of Seattle, a processor of langostinos, will continue to sell their Alaska pollock-based paste as "Crab and Lobster Delights," and is presumably free to sell "lobster-flavored seafood" entirely devoid of lobster.

Maybe Maine needs to join the EU.

Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and author of The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. He lives in Portland and has a website at colinwoodard.com.

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