PORTLAND – A senator from the No. 1 lobster state wants restaurants to stop serving a type of lobster that she says isn’t a lobster at all.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said a shellfish known as “langostino lobster” is an impostor to the real thing – Maine lobster – and she’s asking the Food and Drug Administration to yank approval for restaurants to market the product on their menus.
“Langostino is not lobster, nor should it be marketed as such,” Snowe wrote to FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.
Langostino is Spanish for prawn, but Kristen Millar of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council says the langostino is actually a pelagic crab. To serve it up as lobster is an “insult to Maine and to the lobster industry,” Millar said.
Some seafood lovers might question what all the fuss is about.
But the Maine Lobster Promotion Council says it’s all about giving consumers what they’re paying for. The council also contends langostinos have cost Maine fishermen $44 million in lost sales to restaurant chains since April.
The issue came to light after a California-based restaurant chain, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, was sued last year by customers for using the less expensive langostino instead of lobster in its “lobster burrito.”
The case was settled in April with no admission of wrongdoing by Rubio’s.
As part of the settlement, the Food and Drug Administration sanctioned the use of the term “langostino lobster” for the South American variety of langostino.
Millar said the term “langostino lobster” does nothing to clarify anything because consumers are getting “smushed up crabmeat,” not lobster.
“Sure it’s easier to sell a ‘lobster burrito’ than a ‘pelagic crab burrito.’ People love Maine lobster for the flavor. They don’t love pelagic crab,” she said. “The public is not expecting pelagic crab when they order a lobster.”
Langostinos, which are about 2 inches long, can be purchased for $4 per pound of meat, while meat from the larger Maine lobster goes for about $22 per pound, she said.
“The FDA will be remiss in its duties if it continues to allow restaurants or other entities to perpetuate this hoax at the expense of Maine’s lobstermen and America’s seafood customers,” Snowe, who chairs a fisheries subcommittee, said in her Sept. 25 letter.
Other restaurants have used “langostino lobster.”
Last year, Long John Silver’s introduced “Buttered Lobster Bites,” which were made with langostino lobster. The chain marketed the limited-time seafood as being for people who “crave the taste of lobster, but they don’t have $20 to spend.”
Red Lobster has “live Maine lobster” on its menu. But past entrees have included “Maine and langostino lobster meat” and a shrimp and lobster dish that contained “shrimp and Maine and langostino lobster,” according to Millar’s group.
Red Lobster and Long John Silver’s didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
Maine is trying to position its lobster as distinctive.
Last summer, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council unveiled a campaign calling for lobster dealers to affix the crustaceans with a “Certified Maine Lobster” logo to ensure that they didn’t come from neighboring states or from Canada.
Such efforts aren’t so unusual. The U.S. catfish industry successfully lobbied for a law to bar Vietnamese from labeling a similar seafood as “catfish.”
As for the langostino, the waters are murky, as well.
The European langostino is considered to be a lobster because it has small claws, but the jury is still out on the South American langostino, most of which comes from Chile, said Bob Bayer, executive director of Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.
The book, “Lobsters of the World,” calls Chilean langostino a lobster, but Bayer wasn’t ready to take the plunge. “I’m not sure,” he said.
At Teatro Goldoni, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., master chef Fabrizio Aielli has a recipe for “couscous risotto with rock shrimp topped with a langostino.”
“We just call it langostino,” said Aielli, who hails from the Isle of Cipriani off the coast of Venice, Italy. “For me, it’s more of a shrimp. In Italy, we call it scampi.”