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Taking Aim At 'Impostor Lobster'

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What's in a name? For Maine lobstermen, tens of millions of dollars, says one senator.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, from the nation's leading lobster-producing state, Maine, wants U.S. restaurants to stop calling a type of seafood a lobster, because she says it isn't a lobster at all.

Snowe says a 2-inch shellfish known as "langostino lobster" is an impostor to the real thing, and she's asking the Food and Drug Administration to yank approval for restaurants to market the product as lobster 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.

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 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 crab meat."

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. It contends langostinos cost Maine fishermen $44 million in lost sales to restaurant chains since April.

Some restaurants, such as Long John Silver's and Red Lobster, have marketed langostinos as "langostino lobster," different than Maine lobster but lobster nonetheless. Long John Silver's introduced "Buttered Lobster Bites," last year 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 and Long John Silver's didn't immediately return calls seeking comment.

Snowe, who chairs the fisheries subcommittee, said in her Sept. 25 letter the FDA would "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."

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."