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'FRESH' LIMITS ON CRAB PACKERS FDA to curb use of word on cooked product


WASHINGTON -- Impending regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will strictly limit the use of the word "fresh" on food labels, and orange juice manufacturers are not the only ones about to be squeezed.

Maryland packers of crab meat soon will be in violation of federal regulations if they continue calling the familiar, refrigerated plastic tubs of crab meat "fresh" when the meat has been cooked.

"I think it's important to keep [the word] 'fresh,' " said Jack Brooks of the J. M. Clayton crab-packing company in Cambridge. Maryland crab packers have been calling such crab meat "fresh" for 115 years, he said, "so I don't see where it deceives consumers."

Unfortunately for Mr. Brooks, the FDA's blanket rule, which will take effect in May, will require that the word "fresh" be stricken from the labels of all food that has been heated during processing, even if it has been called "fresh" historically.

"Fresh" also will be struck from the labels of made-from-concentrate products such as orange juice.

The Maryland health department wrote to the FDA last year asking about alternative terms such as "freshly picked" or "cooked fresh." FDA officials said both terms probably would be allowed. Discussions are continuing, and nothing will be certain until a final rule is published Nov. 8.

The FDA's labeling overhaul does not stop with the word "fresh." The agency, which has stepped up its policing duties under Commissioner David Kessler, is changing the format of nutritional tables and rethinking other aspects of many product labels.

But one issue the agency isn't touching is the regulation of grades of crab, including lump, claw and backfin. Consumers often are confused by the terms used by packers, and some distributors label their meat "lump" when it is not.

Mary Snyder of the FDA's Office of Seafood said such labeling is not within the agency's jurisdiction. Even if regulators could devise a reasonable definition for each grade of crab, the rule would be impossible to enforce, she said. If the FDA attempted to sue a packer who was selling flake meat as lump, "he would just say, 'Oh, your honor, they were lumps when they were put in the can,' " she said.

Ms. Snyder and Mr. Brooks, who sits on the board of directors of the National Blue Crab Industries Association and the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, agreed grading guidelines should come from the crab industry.

Mr. Brooks said the National Blue Crab Association is developing a plan based on the classifications used by most Maryland packers: jumbo lump (whole pieces), lump (broken pieces), special flake (small bits), mixed backfin (a mixture of lump and flake) and claw.

The FDA isn't tackling the cooking methods packers use.

In Louisiana and some other Southern states, crab meat traditionally is boiled, but Maryland law requires that crab be steamed. Boiling adds water to the product, giving Southern states a cost advantage of up to 50 cents a pound, said Jeanette Lyon of the state health department.

"Some [Maryland] watermen weren't working last year because they couldn't sell their crabs" in a market glutted by cheaper, boiled crab, Mr. Brooks said. "So there's economic hardship because of it, and the consumer naturally is not getting what they're paying for."

Bill Sieling, a state Department of Agriculture official who helps crabbers market their wares, said it would be illegal to ban the sale of boiled crab in Maryland. But the state can require all crab meat to be labeled with its cooking method, he said, and such a regulation will take effect in May to coincide with the new federal rules.

It is Mr. Sieling's job to make sure people understand the implications of buying out-of-state crab.

"We want people to buy Maryland crab," he said. "Most people think of crab as a generic product," but not all crustaceans are created equal, he said.

Maryland is the nation's top crab-producing state, Mr. Sieling said. In an effort to keep it that way, the Maryland crab industry has run "Buy Maryland" ads in newspapers asking consumers to look for the Maryland code on cans of crab meat.

"I contacted a lot of stores in Baltimore, and most of them never gave a thought to where they bought their crab meat," Mr. Sieling said. "It could have come from Kalamazoo for all they cared."

The Maryland health department is considering requiring crab to carry a packing date, or "best if used by" or "sell by" dates on refrigerated crab. Ms. Snyder said the FDA does not require such information because a date would give consumers "a false sense of security" if the product had been mishandled.

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