Testing a 'Lobster Impostor' Charge

A chain restaurant in California faces a lawsuit, accused of not using real lobster in what it advertises as lobster burritos. The claim: a langostino is NOT a lobster. Is that true? It may be a matter of semantics.

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Would a lobster by any other name taste as sweet? That's the question facing a California-based restaurant chain after a class-action lawsuit questioned the contents of a company's lobster burritos. NPR's Scott Horsley conducted a scientific investigation of the claim and counterclaim and sent us this report.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill has been selling lobster burritos for about six years, and they've become a signature product for the San Diego-based chain which operates about 150 restaurants in six western states. But attorney Ray Gallo complains Rubio's lobster burrito is a lie because it doesn't contain the North Atlantic lobster he says a reasonable customer would expect, nor the spiny lobster of the Pacific. Instead, the burritos are stuffed with langostino, a tiny Chilean shellfish that Gallo says costs about one-third what lobster does. His lawsuit seeks refunds and an apology for some 200,000 customers who've purchased the burritos. Rubio's CEO, Sheri Miksa comes clawing back, saying the company has done nothing wrong.

Ms. SHERI MIKSA (Chief Executive Officer, Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill): We take the integrity of the products we serve to our guests very seriously, and I can say that no consumer fraud has taken place here.

HORSLEY: Miksa says Rubio's cleared the lobster label with the Food and Drug Administration before it ever began selling the burritos. The company did modify its menu about a month ago when it was warned of the impending lawsuit. The burritos are now listed as langostino lobster.

Ms. MIKSA: We don't talk about the specific costs of the products we use, but I can assure you the lobster burrito that we feature is an excellent product at a great price, which is what people have come to expect from Rubio's.

HORSLEY: That doesn't satisfy attorney Gallo. `Rubio's can dress it up with rice, beans and salsa,' he writes in his complaint, `but it cannot change the reality that a langostino is not a lobster.' Or is it? I decided to put that question to an expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But first, I had to pick up some research samples.

(Soundbite of music)

HORSLEY: I stop at the Rubio's Restaurant near my office and order two lobster burritos to go. Food in hand, I head to the ocean and the institute where Larry Lovell is curator of the Benthic, or bottom dwelling, invertebrate collection. His work bench is covered with shellfish specimens from the order, decapoda, which includes the familiar Maine lobster, its distant cousin, the spiny lobster and crawfish-sized langostino, also known as squat lobsters.

Mr. LARRY LOVELL (Scripps Institution of Oceanography): The problem is basically one of semantics in that within the order, decapoda, we have three different infraorders that each have animals that have common names that reflect the word `lobster' in them.

HORSLEY: Floating in their jar of ethanol, the two-inch to three-inch squat lobsters don't look all that appetizing. But as Lovell notes, they do have meaty little tails. Wrap them up in a warm tortilla and they'd be hard to tell from their more famous cousins.

Mr. LOVELL: As far as I'm concerned, they taste and eat pretty much the same. It's just that one has a larger tail to begin with and another has a smaller tail to begin with. So you're getting many small lobsters as opposed to one large lobster.

HORSLEY: To test that hypothesis Lovell sprinkled some green salsa on the Rubio's burrito and chews with appropriate scientific curiosity.

Mr. LOVELL: Tastes like lobster to me.

HORSLEY: Lovell calls the lawsuit much ado about nothing. Or to paraphrase another title from Shakespeare: A tempest in a lobster pot.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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