U.S. Sen. David Vitter says his office is drafting a bill to strengthen national shrimp inspection laws, ban tainted imports and create stiffer penalties for improper labeling. Vitter, R-Metairie, recently announced his plans to the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force, which was created earlier this year by Gov. Bobby Jindal to help the industry overcome challenges such as low dockside prices and foreign competition. Until recently, the task force has focused on pushing state-level legislation, which includes making itself permanent, increasing the shrimp excise tax for marketing efforts and creating a new program that would certify Louisiana shrimp. Such ideas could be up for debate when state lawmakers convene in the spring. Representatives from the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, told task force members they're prepared to work hand-in-hand with Vitter's team.
Vitter says the first priority should be a stand-alone bill that would increase inspections on all foreign-shipped seafood and hold importers to the same standards domestic suppliers have to face; ban counties with histories of supplying tainted shrimp from selling their goods in the United States and strengthen penalties for mislabeling. Vitter says the bill is still in the "conceptual stages" and he isn't sure how it will fare, but one possible tactic is to add its provisions to a larger food-safety bill the Senate is expected to take up next year. "We want to beef it up in regards to shrimp issues," Vitter says of the Senate. State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, a task force member, offered an idea Vitter seemed to like: having state inspection officials enter into a cooperative endeavor agreement with the federal government to help inspect seafood, like the agreement that already exists on beef and poultry. "We understand that customs officials are inspecting less than 1 percent of the containers right now," Strain says.
In February, President Barack Obama's administration will consider whether the anti-dumping orders placed on the shrimp industries of five foreign nations should remain to protect the fishermen and processors back at home. In 2005, the U.S. International Trade Commission placed anti-dumping orders on shrimp from Brazil, India, Vietnam, China and Thailand because it found those countries were importing a product at a price below the cost of production.
Before that battle begins, the feds are considering settling with importers from Thailand on $120 million in back tariffs. That decision could allow Thailand to escape future tariffs, depending on negotiations. Task force members asked for help from the delegation on that matter as well. "If they're able to settle, then every other country will try to come in and do the same thing, and there will be no tariffs at all," says Danny Babin, who represents processors on the task force. "I mean, they have the worst record out there with child labor and we're going to settle with them?" — Alford