Monday, July 31, 2006

Make sure it is a Mainah lobstah!

Still having problems uploading images - see the new tags at the original article:

Sure it's a Maine lobster? Check for an ID

By Bella English, Globe Staff July 31, 2006

At restaurants throughout the world, menus feature "Maine lobster," that sweet, succulent stuff that makes grown people don bibs and make a delicious mess. Like Idaho potatoes, Vermont maple syrup, and Florida oranges, Maine lobster has become a name brand. The state produces 75 percent of the lobster catch in the United States, and it brings a premium price, both at the docks and on the table.

But are you really getting Maine lobster, or is it what some Mainers call an "impostor lobster," from Canada or elsewhere? Under a new program that kicks off today in Portland, lobster dealers will be encouraged to tag the catch, identifying it as being caught in Maine waters. The plastic tags will hang from the claw knuckles and state simply: "Certified Maine Lobster." On the front will be a picture of a lobster and a lighthouse; on the back, "" At a press conference, Governor John Baldacci will tag the first "official" lobster, caught in Casco Bay.

Because of increasing competition from Canada, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council is having to market a product that's been a mainstay of the state for centuries, and whose iconic crustacean image graces the state's license plates. "We hope every lobster caught in Maine waters will soon be wearing these new ID bracelets," said Kristen Millar, the council's executive director. "It's truth in advertising. All lobsters are called 'Maine lobsters' and yet they're not all from Maine. It has become this generic term, like Kleenex."

"Don't buy impostor lobster" is the campaign slogan, which will be printed on all sorts of items, from lobster bags to placemats.

The program will be voluntary, dependent upon everyone from the dealers who buy lobster off the docks for resale to retailers or processing plants. John Hathaway, a lobster dealer and processor who owns Shucks Maine Lobster in Richmond, loves the idea. "We have the best lobster in the world, and we need to let people know what they're getting."

What they're getting, he said, are environmentally sustainable creatures carefully harvested by experts. "It's not some big trawler out there dragging the bottom. These are guys who go out and they take them by hand, only take the right size, and they place them down carefully. There's a lot of TLC involved."

But Maine sells 60 to 70 percent of its catch to Canada, where much of it is processed and packaged as lobster meat, then sold back to US fish shops and restaurants as a "product of Canada." (Canada has several lobster processing plants, which are subsidized by the government, while Maine has three privately owned plants.)

According to US law, retailers are required to disclose the country of origin for seafood, says Millar. But federal law also states that if a US product is radically transformed in another country, it becomes a product of that country. Hence, a Maine lobster sold to Canada where it is taken out of the shell, cooked or left raw, and then packaged is a product of Canada.

Maine's new tagging program won't change Canadians' habits, but officials are hoping to raise awareness among US consumers. If the program works, customers will be able to determine whether the lobster they're buying is really from Maine. Ultimately, the state's fishermen say more local processing plants need to be built to support an industry that last year harvested 65 million pounds of lobster, for sales of $300 million.

Naturally, if you ask anyone in Maine, its lobster is vastly superior to Canada's. Michael Gagne is chef/owner of the Robinhood Free Meeting House, a five-star restaurant on Georgetown Island. He'll use only local lobster, which he said is incomparable. "Most of Maine lobster tends to be softshell so it's easier to eat, not so fibrous, and is sweeter," he said.

But chef Jasper White, who owns four Summer Shack restaurants in the Boston area, said he uses lobsters from Canada and Maine, as well as other New England states. For him, it's not a matter of which is better, but which is available. "If people come in here in February and ask for Maine lobster, I'll tell them to go wake up the lobstermen and the lobsters, because the lobsters go dormant in winter," said White, who wrote the cookbook "Lobster at Home."
Canada has the majority of the North American market, said White. He added that he's glad Maine is starting to market its product. "For rolling up your sleeves and enjoying steamed lobster, you can't beat Maine lobster in the summer."

Maine lobstermen and dealers tend to be an independent lot, and supporters of the tagging program hope they'll cooperate. "The quintessential symbol of independence in this area of the country is the Maine lobsterman," said Gagne. "And that is both the boon and the bane. They need to work together because this is a global marketplace."

Millar recently sent a letter to Maine lobster dealers, explaining the program and asking them to sign an agreement that they will participate. Once they do, they'll receive the tags and other promotional materials.

But once the lobster leaves the dealer's hands for a fish store or a restaurant, it's the honor system: What's to stop a retailer from advertising his Canadian lobster as Maine lobster? "We will hear through the grapevine, through the marketplace . . . . We are going to be very aware of those folks who say they're serving it, but they're not, and we'll make a big deal out of it," stressed Millar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For a New Hampshire perspective, on who has the best lobster, here's another take on this story:

Who has the best lobster?
Council thinks Maine does - and its new campaign says so

By RACHEL ELLNER, Telegraph Correspondent

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006

Maine Lobster Promotion Council says its lobster tastes the best.

Let’s face it. New England and Canadian lobster tastes good, and demand for it is strong all over the world. But some folks in Maine say lobster from their state tastes even better than the rest. They’ve commissioned studies that they say prove it. This month, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council is launching a campaign to promote the claim.

“Don’t buy imposter lobster” is the council’s campaign slogan. “Know where your lobster comes from. Ask for lobster from Maine.”

“My answer all day long is ‘Yes, lobster from Maine tastes better.’ And so says our research of which we’ve done a lot – that the lobster from Maine is the best lobster,” says Kristen Millar, executive director of the council. The “Certified Maine Lobster” campaign, which will try to get seafood dealers to put plastic hang tags on their lobsters to promote the Maine brand, “is to reassure consumers that they’re getting what they ask for.”

But lobstermen, seafood chefs and restaurateurs from New Hampshire and elsewhere demur.

“It’s the same lobster,” says Bob Nudd, a lobsterman from Hampton. “I think it’s presumptuous for them to say that Maine lobster is a better than from other parts of the coastline.”

“I don’t think there’s a whole heck of a lot of difference between Maine and lobsters that may be caught off the coast of New Hampshire,” says Ben Workinger, owner of the Lobster Boat Restaurant in Merrimack and Li’l Lobster Boat restaurants in Litchfield and Tyngsborough, Mass.

The area’s cold-water lobster, no matter where it comes from, is so good overall that people can’t even agree on whether hard-shell or soft-shell lobster tastes better. But there’s no ambiguity in Maine.

“We harvest lobster in Maine primarily in the summer and fall when the lobsters have recently shed that we call soft shell or new shell, and the meat is tender and succulent, whereas a hard shell lobster is often fibrous and tough and I believe that consumers think they’re getting a better deal because it’s jam packed full of meat,” Millar says.

When asked if he was partial to geographical location, Matt Provencher, chef at Surf Restaurant in Nashua, said, “Not as long as there’s a nice hard shell, a hard full shell lobster, and you get that beautiful sweetness.”

Soft shell lobster isn’t superior?

“Actually, I don’t like soft-shell lobster,” Provencher says. “The meat is very pasty; it’s weaker and waterier. I honestly like a lobster in December that’s been in the cold water.”

Says Workinger, “I don’t think there’s any amount of promotion that anyone can do. . . . The new shell is milky and soft. The meat’s not as firm and there’s not as much.”

Nudd and his wife, Sheila, say they prefer the soft shell.

“Granted, there’s not as much meat and there’s more water,” Nudd says. “But the meat is tastier, moister and the shells are much, much easier to open. If I eat lobster in the middle of winter, by the time I’m done I have at least one bloody finger.”

Maybe the rocky coast affects taste in other ways. There is some agreement that the Maine coast is a popular destination in people’s mind when they’re eating lobster, and that in turn can affect their opinion about taste.

“People believe that the pristine state of the environment and the traditional nature of the (lobster) industry, of the rugged lobsterman, the romantic imagery that’s conjured up influences the taste of lobster,” Millar says.

Could be, says Provencher. “I think it’s nice to have a restaurant on the rocks and it looks all nice. I know that your meal can be influenced from where you are. One of the best meals I ever had was on the beach in the Dominican Republic. If I had it here it might not have been as good. I know a lot has to do with perceptions.”

But the council is banking on more than imagery. “The answer from scientists is that the water is different in Maine; the Gulf Stream is different. There’s also that Maine has the reputation of having strong environmental protections; we don’t have a lot of industry here it’s all pretty straightforward, that affects the water quality.”

Does the water quality affect the taste? “Yes,” says Millar. “From our research (conducted by Market Decisions of Portland, Maine), we know consumers want lobster from Maine. So there’s a value in knowing where your lobster comes from and getting what you want, and the best lobster available. We believe the market will pay for it.”

Yet even Maine needs its neighbors’ lobster. They all benefit, says lobsterman Bill Adler, from the fact that the demand for lobster can be met year-round.

“The irony is that at certain times of the year, the only lobster that is available for the world market is Canadian and at other times it’s the Canadian and the Maine, the New Hampshire, the Massachusetts. It’s all the same creature,” says Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association.

Nudd praises the council for its previous “Lobster: Truly the ultimate white meat” campaign, which piggybacked on the National Pork Board’s ads to expand the pork market. But this time, the Down Easterners may have gone too far.

“I can tell you honestly,” Nudd says. “I’ve eaten lobster from Canada, I’ve eaten them from Maine, I’ve eaten them from New York, Massachusetts and I’ve been doing this for well over 35 years catching lobsters, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better lobster than a lobster from New Hampshire. Our coastline is just as rocky than anyplace in Maine, our waters are just as pristine and our lobsters taste better. I can be just as presumptuous. There is no difference."