Jeremy Alford

Vitter drafting legislation for shrimp industry

by Jeremy Alford

U.S. Sen. David Vitter says his office is working on the early version of a bill that would strengthen national shrimp inspection laws, ban tainted imports and create stiffer penalties for improper labeling. Vitter, R-Metairie, announced his plans last week 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.
Up until now, the task force has been focused on pushing state-level legislation, which includes making the task force 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 the state Legislature convenes its regular session next spring.

But federal matters are an entirely different topic altogether and representatives from the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, told task force members this week that they’re prepared to work hand-in-hand with Vitter’s team. “She has made it her top priority,” state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, who represents portions of Terrebonne Parish, told task force members, based on meetings he has had recently with Landrieu and her staffers.

Vitter phoned in his comments personally to the task force and outlined the actions that could be taken in coming weeks. “We stand ready with the rest of the delegation to consider all of your ideas about federal options,” Vitter says. The first item up to bat will be a standalone bill, Vitter says, that would:

â- Increase inspections on all foreign-shipped seafood and hold importers to the same standards as domestic suppliers
â- Ban countries with histories of supplying tainted shrimp from selling their goods in the U.S.
â- Strengthen penalties for mislabeling — that is, those fishing operations that might mark their product as being from Louisiana when it’s really from a foreign country
Vitter says the legislation is only in the “conceptual stages” and he isn’t sure how successful it might on its own, but his underlying goal is to have the sections added 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.

State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, a task force member, offered an idea that Vitter was receptive to: 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 meats like beef and poultry. “We understand that customs officials are inspecting less than 1 percent of the containers right now,” Strain says. “

On the horizon, President Barack Obama’s administration will consider in February whether the antidumping orders that were 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 antidumping orders on shrimp from Brazil, India, Vietnam, China and Thailand because it found the countries were importing a product at a price below what’s known as the home market, or below the cost of production.

But before that battle can even take place, the federal government is considering settling with importers from Thailand on $120 million in back tariffs it owes and the decision could allow Thailand to escape future tariffs, depending on negotiations. 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?”

Vitter, Landrieu and the rest of Louisiana’s delegation are also expected to take a look at other issues, such removing shrimp from the commodity market, seeking federal funds for creating value-adds products and following up on the existing tariff collections.