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Is it a lobster, a crab, a shrimp or something else? That is a $45 million question before the Food and Drug Administration. The debate over the true identity of a South American shellfish known as the langostino has more than a few people steamed.

We'll leave the rest of the story to Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

SUSAN SHARON: Here on Long Wharf in Portland, lobstermen say they think the two inch long langostino is being used as a pawn in a high stake shell game. Here's how Tom Martin, captain of The Lucky Catch, puts it.

Mr. TOM MARTIN: You can't pass off a bologna sandwich as a sirloin steak.

SHARON: Here's the short history of the langostino dispute. Last year a California restaurant chain got into trouble for offering up lobster burritos on its menu. Turns out the burritos contained langostino, the Spanish word for prawn. To settle a class action lawsuit brought by disgruntled customers, the restaurant chain agreed to label the food langostino lobster and it did so with permission from the Food and Drug Administration, much to the chagrin of one prominent Maine politician.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): It's not fair and it's not right after all. The fact is a langostino is a prawn or a crab.

SHARON: Senator Olympia Snowe has been called crabby for her position on the langostino. She's written a letter to the FDA asking the agency to reconsider its position and forbid restaurant chains like Long John Silver's, Red Lobster and Rubio's from marketing their lobster appetizers, alfredos and other recipes as langostino lobster dishes.

Kristen Millar, Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, says the state's lobster industry has lost $45 million to competition from the less expensive Langostino since April.

Ms. KRISTEN MILLAR (Maine Lobster Promotion Council): You can get this pelagic crab, also known as langostino, for $4 a pound or you can buy Maine lobster meat, which is what the marketplace wants, for $24 a pound. So at a fifth of the price, you can put lobster on your menu. Not good for Maine's fisheries.

SHARON: Millar calls the langostino a lobster imposter and the insults don't end there. The langostino's also been dubbed a crustacean mutation, a mud bug and a shrimp lobster. Even experts on lobster biology say it's a tough description to sink your teeth into. Dr. Robert Steneck of the University of Maine says the langostino is a squat lobster, but in common name only.

Dr. ROBERT STENECK (University of Maine): It looks a little bit like a lobster. It has claws. It has a small tail. But it's actually more closely related to hermit crabs.

SHARON: That would seem to suggest that the langostino is a more appropriate ingredient in a crab rangoon than a lobster newburg.

Not necessarily, says Don Kramer, acting director in the Office of Seafood at the FDA. Close relation to the hermit crab or not, Cramer says the langostino's lineage is clear.

Mr. DON KRAMER (FDA): While langostino might look to someone like a crab and look to someone else like a shrimp, it actually falls within the family that is known as lobster.

SHARON: Kramer says the langostino is just one of many different kinds of lobster around the world, but he points out that the Maine lobster is the only one that can be simply labeled lobster.

Senator Snowe isn't satisfied with that argument and she's thinking of asking Congress to write the ending to this lobster tale.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.

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