NEW ORLEANS – A campaign to lift "Wild American Shrimp" to the same cuisine status as Burgundy grapes or Angus beef is off to a rough start after shrimpers criticized TV chef Emeril Lagasse's (search) new line of frozen shrimp.
Lagasse's product — "Emeril's Louisiana Shrimp" — was seen as crucial to a government-backed program to brand Gulf of Mexico shrimp as superior to the inexpensive, pond-raised imports that now comprise 87 percent of the U.S. market.
But some shrimpers (search) say Emeril's product does not live up to the "Wild American Shrimp" logo or the Commerce Department's certification as top-of-the-catch U.S Grade A.
"It wasn't the quality of shrimp (search) that I thought Emeril would be packing," said Byron Despaux, a Barataria fisherman and member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. "There were broken tails, some pieces and some black spots," he said.
"Believe me, it's junk" added Pete Gerica, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fishermen's Association on Wednesday. "I wanted to see a quality product so we could move Louisiana's share of the market at a higher price."
Lagasse, a ubiquitous presence on cable's Food Network (search) who made his name as chef at New Orleans' Commander's Palace restaurant, declined to comment.
His spokeswoman, Mimi Rice Duncan, said in a statement, however, that the company is committed to providing top-quality products. "We continually review each lot inspection, and to date have maintained a consistent, high-quality rating," the statement said.
Craig Borges, co-owner of the New Orleans Fish House and Lagasse's distributor, said Lagasse's shrimp was top grade, but that supermarkets may have damaged the shrimp.
"Once we ship them from our plants and ship them to market, we lose control of them," he said. "I don't have control if grocery store freezers aren't working."
Prompted by complaints, the Wild American Shrimp campaign took samples of the Emeril shrimp and found some of it beneath its standards.
"Some samples were not of the quality we wanted to get out to the consumer, but it was not severe enough for a recall," said Eddie Gordon, the campaign's executive director. He said the campaign has asked the Commerce Department to step up inspections of shrimp it certifies as Grade A.
In the meantime, some Louisiana shrimpers say Lagasse's less-than-stellar product shows that Louisiana needs its own certification program. Louisiana State University is developing one such program.
"We've got to get some assurance programs in place that guarantee our buyers and consumers the right stuff," said Harlon Pearce, a processor and chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "When it says Louisiana on the box, it's got to be that."