Please note that this article was written by a Louisiana native
Crawfish has become a symbol of Louisiana’s cultural identity. Louisianians catch more crawfish, farm raise more crawfish, eat more crawfish, and have more ways to cook crawfish than any other place in the world. Up until the early 1990s, visions of Louisiana supplying the rest of the US and much of the world with crawfish were much closer to reality that now.
It was with shock to most in Louisiana that it was learned that another country had begun to export crawfish to Louisiana, rather than import them from the state. That country was China. And to add insult to injury, the crawfish they were sending to Louisiana were the same species on which the Louisiana crawfish industry was built, the red swamp crawfish.
Red Swamp Crawfish
Probably the most hardy and adaptable crawfish species in the world, the red swamp crawfish was originally native to only 13 Southern and Mississippi River states. It has since been introduced to a dozen more US states and at least 20 other countries in Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa. In addition to China, commercial harvests of red swamp crawfish are made in Spain and Kenya. In many places where they have been introduced, they are considered pests, burrowing through dykes, aggressively pushing aside native species, and carrying diseases deadly to native crawfish.
Failing Louisiana Crawfish Industry
The flood of very cheap crawfish from China felled a large percentage of Louisiana’s crawfish peeling plants, already staggering under increased costs of production. For a time it looked as if imported Chinese crawfish tail meat would replace Louisiana peeled meat in the marketplace. At the last minute, the Louisiana crawfish industry prevailed with a petition to the US Department of Commerce and the international trade commission that alleged these imports were being unfairly dumped in the US. In 1997, tariffs were applied to Chinese imports, saving a reduced number of crawfish peeling plants in southwest Louisiana.
Even with the tariffs however, Chinese produced crawfish tail meat is cheaper than Louisiana tail meat Nevertheless, a surprising number of chefs and home cooks prefer Louisiana crawfish meat. Some maintain that the local crawfish meat tastes better than the imported competition. Differences do indeed exist, although the crawfish meat comes from the same species. Generally speaking, the individual crawfish meats in the Chinese imports are larger than those in the Louisiana product. Smaller tails are often from younger crawfish and are more tender than those from large animals. In Louisiana, much of the catch is graded by size, with large animals going to the boiled crawfish trade and smaller ones going to crawfish peeling plants.
Crawfish Import Laws
Determining where crawfish are produced is very simple, as all bagged crawfish meat must have a country of origin label. Mandatory labeling for seafood was passed by Congress in 2002. Unfortunately, a few exemptions from country of origin labels rules still do exist. If the meat is in a cooked preparation or mixed with other seafood products, it is exempt from labeling, even if all of the packaged products are imports.