Guest Column: You call this a Maine lobster?

First published in Landings, April, 2013.

Marianne Lacroix is the acting director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Photo courtesy of MLPC.

Marianne Lacroix is the acting director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Photo courtesy of MLPC.

It’s a common complaint – you see Maine lobster advertised on a menu or in a retail market somewhere else in the country or the world, only to find out on closer inspection that it is imposter lobster. It might be an entirely different species of lobster, or maybe it’s an American lobster that’s identifiable by its size or bands as being from someplace other than Maine.  Whatever the case, you clearly have a product being mislabeled as Maine lobster taking advantage of strong brand recognition and consumer preference for the Maine name.

This is an unfortunate situation – an unsuspecting consumer could eat langostino or spiny lobster, thinking it is an authentic Maine lobster.  These are products with very different tastes and textures, not to mention different origins and harvesting methods, and we certainly don’t want consumers forming an opinion of Maine lobster based on that dining experience.

Studies have shown that as much as one third of seafood in restaurants, supermarkets and other retail locations is mislabeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.  The FDA publishes a Seafood List that identifies acceptable market names, common names, scientific names and vernacular names for each seafood species. American lobster and European lobster are the only species that can use the acceptable market name ‘lobster’ without any other modifier.  All other species require modifiers such as rock lobster, langostino lobster or spiny lobster.

The MLPC worked with the FDA to remove Maine lobster years ago as the common name for American lobster on the FDA Seafood List. The guidelines for labeling lobster thus become clear for everyone buying or selling lobster within the supply chain. It allows us to challenge use of the Maine lobster label for products that clearly are not harvested in Maine.

Unfortunately, there is little opportunity for federal enforcement against mislabeled seafood unless seafood fraud is suspected. Seafood fraud is a specific form of mislabeling for financial gain, including substituting one species for another.

There are three federal agencies responsible for dealing with seafood fraud in its various forms.  Custom and Border Protection (CBP) works to prevent evasion of customs duties, which is rarely relevant to mislabeled Maine lobster. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provides fee-for-service inspections related to issues such as labeling and safety concerns for the seafood industry. That means that someone in the supply chain must suspect fraud and be willing to pay for an inspection. Finally, the FDA is responsible for ensuring that food is safe, wholesome and properly labeled. FDA’s priority is food safety, so it devotes minimal resources to detect or prevent seafood fraud unless there are health implications. These government agencies are focused on food safety and financial crimes rather than improper brand use.

U.S. Representative and Senate candidate Ed Markey (D-Mass) has introduced a bill to combat seafood fraud by tracking fish from boat to plate. The bill would require information already collected by U.S. fishermen, such as species name, catch location and harvest method, to follow the fish through the marketplace and be made available to consumers. It would require foreign exporters of seafood to the U.S. to provide equivalent documentation and would also allow NOAA to levy civil penalties against violators under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. If passed, this bill could potentially help us to protect the Maine lobster name.

One new opportunity for brand protection is the Maine lobster fishery’s sustainability certification by the Marine Stewardship Council. Products using the MSC logo must have built-in traceability in order to prove that the end product is from a sustainable source. Tests have shown that only 1% of seafood products with the MSC logo are mislabeled. This helps ensure that Maine lobster with an MSC logo is actually from Maine. We will have to wait and see how many companies decide to go through the chain of custody certification process that is required to use the MSC logo.

If you see a product mislabeled as Maine lobster, please take a photo of the product and label (menu, sign, ad, etc.) and email it to info@lobsterfrommaine.com along with the location.  MLPC will contact the location, verify the lobster source and direct the buyer to authentic Maine lobster.  We can also help ensure that companies are not using the term ‘lobster’ incorrectly.  For example, MLPC was successful in getting Long John Silver’s restaurant chain to change their ‘lobster bites’ to ‘langostino lobster bites’ and Zabar’s New York City deli to rename its ‘lobster salad,’ which was made with freshwater crayfish, to a more appropriate name.

Maine lobster is an iconic product with strong brand recognition and preference among consumers. Ironically, misuse of the brand name demonstrates its high value in the marketplace.  We just need to ensure that the value benefits Mainers.