In 2015, Sean McClure, Director of Culinary Operations for Ryleigh's Oyster, talked about issues with the labeling of crabmeat. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
Here's a thought for Maryland seafood lovers to sink their teeth into: A survey has found that more than a third of the crab cakes tested at Maryland and Washington, D.C., restaurants were not local blue crab as advertised, but imported crab.
Crab cakes at Baltimore and Annapolis restaurants had the highest rates of mislabeling: 46 percent and 47 percent, respectively, according to the study released today by the conservation group Oceana. The lowest rate, 9 percent, was on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The study, which tested the genetic material contained in crab cakes at 86 regional restaurants last year, confirmed what many in the industry had suspected for years — that less expensive foreign crab was being passed off as crab from the Chesapeake Bay.
"I'm dismayed, but I'm not surprised," said Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
"It's so tempting for companies and restaurants to put something on the menu that they can get more profit from," he said, adding that mixing other ingredients into the cakes may hide the differences between foreign and local crab.
Such mislabeling, which can occur far from American shores, has attracted the attention of legislators at the state and federal levels.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and a cadre of legislators from Virginia highlighted the problem in July, when they asked the Obama administration to investigate mislabeling of Atlantic blue crab meat. They said the mislabeling cheats local watermen and companies of profits and misleads consumers.
"This report confirms what my constituents have been telling me — U.S. crabmeat is competing against less expensive foreign crabmeat fraudulently labeled as a U.S. product," Mikulski said in response to Oceana's study.
The Obama administration recently created new measures to trace the origins of imported seafood, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been investigating crab imports headed to Maryland. NOAA spokeswoman Allyson Rogers had no comment on the status of the agency's investigation.
Mislabeling can happen at various levels of the "increasingly complex seafood supply chain," including on the boat, during processing, in distribution or at the restaurant, said Beth Lowell, an Oceana campaign director.
Ryleigh's Oyster owner Brian McComas posted on social media recently that his restaurants were running out of local crabmeat and as such, would not serve crab cakes until mid-April. They're cooking just enough to fill catering orders and use for garnishes.
"Obviously, there are times when local crab prices are painful for us, because we could buy imported crab for half as much," McComas said. "But, having been born and raised in Maryland, I believe our crab tastes better. It's better than any crab in the world and it supports the local industry."
The Oceana study tested the DNA in 90 crab cakes advertised as locally sourced blue crab. Scientists sampled crab cakes labeled as "Maryland," "blue crab," "Chesapeake Bay," "Eastern Shore," or otherwise described as locally sourced. The study did not consider "Maryland-style" crab cakes as locally sourced.
Testers found 34 crab cakes lacking any of the blue crab — known as Callinectes sapidus — that crawls across the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, they were packed with less expensive crab found in Thailand, Vietnam and other Indo-Pacific countries, as well as around Mexico. The testers also found three species not listed in U.S. Food and Drug Administration seafood databases.
The scientists took most of their samples in August and September.
Noting that mislabeling can occur well before crabmeat enters the United States, the Oceana report did not disclose the names of restaurants included in the testing.
But at least one local chef found out his crab cakes were on the mislabeled list.
"I had to stop and sit down," said James Barrett, executive chef at the Azure restaurant at the Westin Hotel in Annapolis, upon learning about his crab cakes. "I've been paying $30 per pound for local crab meat!"
He said the foreign alternative is a third less expensive. Barrett reviewed invoices during Oceana's sampling period to confirm that he bought all local crab for his restaurant. However, the restaurant also purchases imported crab for its catering business, he said.
He's not sure how the foreign crab came to be sold in his restaurant, but he has been emphasizing to his sous chefs that they must be clear on what they order and use for blue crab cakes. He bought his local crab from a regional seafood distributor called Profish, and he is sure the company did not misrepresent the crab.
John Rorapaugh, Profish's sustainability director, said all of the crab it sold to Azure around the study time frame was indeed local, bought from the W.T. Ruark processing plant in Fishing Creek.
Sonny Phillips, manager at W.T. Ruark, said it only purchases and packs local blue crab.
Sieling said there is little regulatory enforcement to prevent mislabeled seafood from making its way to consumers.
At the national level, the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported seafood specifically for fraud, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.
The Maryland Department of Heath and Mental Hygiene is charged with inspecting processing plants and restaurants for mislabeling. But officials have said the agency is focused more on sanitation than on economic fraud.
Oceana researchers said crab import data indicate that a significant portion of imported crab is likely mislabeled before it hits the U.S. border. National Marine Fisheries Service data show more than 10,000 metric tons of "Callinectes" crab entered the country last year from Indonesia, China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and India. However, Callinectes crab does not originate from those countries.
John Keeler, CEO of major crab importer Blue Star Foods, said such countries could not be exporting Callinectes crabs unless they were shipped there for processing.
Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents several crab importers, described the federal data as "faulty." He said crab importers have poured money into the Indo-Pacific countries to make the fishing practices of their local crab — known as "Portunus" — more sustainable.
"We don't want the same thing to happen to crabs there as has happened in the Chesapeake Bay area," he said.
Maryland Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County has sponsored a bill in the last two General Assembly sessions that would require restaurants to list the country of origin of seafood on the menu, but the legislation has not advanced, in part due to opposition from the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
"We do recognize the situation needs to be addressed," said Melvin Thompson, government affairs director for the association. "We're not sure from where the problem stems," he said, noting that the mislabeling could happen abroad or at processing plants.
Thompson recently joined Luedtke in asking the state Department of Natural Resources for a task force to study the issue.
Lowell, of Oceana, said the 38 percent mislabeling rate in the Maryland region is likely a conservative figure. The DNA test doesn't differentiate between Maryland blue crab and the same species found in waters as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Argentina.
Results of the crab cake study were in line with Oceana's 2013 study of 1,200 seafood samples in restaurants and stores across the nation. It found a 33 percent mislabeling rate.
Steve Vilnit, the head of Maryland's "True Blue" program, which promotes local restaurants and stores that sell mostly local blue crabmeat, said results of the latest study are "definitely disappointing."
He relies on restaurants to submit receipts to show that they are buying local crab. Now, he's looking into a DNA testing machine.