Hauser Group  /  AP
“I am all about American seafood and have been for 30 years,” celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse says. “I'm proud to be a part of the campaign, especially working with Louisiana shrimpers.”
updated 5/2/2005 1:48:41 PM ET 2005-05-02T17:48:41

Emeril Lagasse, one of America's most-watched TV chefs, has signed onto a campaign to get Americans hooked on premium American shrimp and give a boost to the southern shrimping industry.

Lagasse and the well-known Louisiana food brand Tony Chachere's Creole Foods are selling U.S.-certified "Wild American Shrimp," joining a handful of other companies and restaurant chains also taking part in the program.

The government-funded campaign has been in the works for over a year and aims at differentiating American shrimp from cheap, pond-raised imports. It was sparked by a desire to create a niche market like that for Alaskan salmon, Maine lobster and Angus beef.

"I am all about American seafood and have been for 30 years. I'm proud to be a part of the campaign, especially working with Louisiana shrimpers," Lagasse said. "Many families have been in the shrimping business for generations — and they are battling to stay in business."

The idea behind the certification program is to bolster the price Southern processors and fishermen get for their shrimp. Imports halved the value of domestic shrimp in the past three years, driving many American shrimpers out of business. The campaign hopes to win Americans over to the taste of shrimp harvested in waters off the South Atlantic states and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cheryl Gerber  /  AP
Chef Emeril Lagasse presents his golden shrimp stew after a cooking demonstration in New Orleans earlier this month.
"Once they become aware there's a higher-quality product out there, they're going to demand it," said Larry Avery, managing partner of Gulf Island Shrimp and Seafood LLC, which owns the Chachere brand. "It is a sweeter-flavored shrimp."

Chachere, who died at 90 in 1995, helped popularize Cajun and Creole food with cookbooks specializing in seafood and wild game. He also was known for his seasonings, instant roux and gravy mixes.

"Seafood needs to be like wine," said Eddie Gordon, who heads Wild American Shrimp Inc., a group that formed to organize the marketing campaign with $6 million in grant money from the U.S. government.

"They spend all this time talking about wine in seafood restaurants, why aren't they talking about seafood! I think it's our fault," Gordon said. "People need to sit down and start talking about the different kinds of shrimp, the different kinds of salmon."

With the spring shrimp season under way, Gulf Island's two processors in southern Louisiana will be busy inspecting and certifying shrimp for distribution along the Gulf Coast.

Emeril's shrimp are appearing on supermarkets along the East Coast, in the Southeast and in California. If wild American shrimp proves to be a winner, the company will expand into other areas, said Craig Borges with the New Orleans Fish House, a seafood company doing the packaging and distribution for Emeril's-brand shrimp.

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His famous name helps sell the shrimp. As soon as Theresa Currie saw Emeril's shrimp at her grocery store on in the New Orleans suburb of St. Tammany Parish, she bought a bag. Emeril's 16-ounce bags of large-sized shrimp sold for $11.99, $1 more than a generic brand of imports.

"I would assume — I know it's an assumption — but if it is Emeril, it's local," she said. "He has a good reputation."

Still, getting Currie to buy the shrimp was an easy sale: She'd heard all about the campaign because her husband works in the seafood business.

Getting less shrimp-savvy shoppers in places such as Maryland, California and the Midwest to pay more for American shrimp than they do for imported varieties will be much tougher, said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute.

But he said there's a good chance the marketing strategy will pay off, especially in light of the growing appetite Americans have for seafood in general.

Connelly added that imports have their place too: "Some people savor a nice juicy shrimp from the Gulf, but for some that taste is too overpowering and they want the milder taste of black tiger (shrimp) from Asia."

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