Is nothing sacred? Not even Maryland crab?
Apparently not. An Eastern Shore seafood company has been caught labeling frozen crab meat from Pakistan as fresh-picked in Maryland. And a state official suggests that other companies may be doing the same thing.
After a routine visit in May to Tideland Seafood Inc. in Wingate, Dorchester County, a state food inspector reported finding employees transferring nearly 400 pounds of the imported crab meat from cans into plastic cups labeled as Maryland's own.
The inspector also reported finding 91 one-pound containers of partially frozen crab meat thawing in a sink at the Tideland plant. Judging by the labels, that meat came from other processing plants, including one in Maryland that closed in 1990.
William Fitzhugh, the owner and president of Tideland, could face legal action.
Under state law, the manufacture of adulterated or misbranded food is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment, or a fine up to $10,000, or both.
The state health department decided Friday to refer the case to the state's attorney in Dorchester County for possible prosecution.
"The crab was obviously inferior, by sight and odor," said Jeanette B. Lyon, acting chief of the division of food control of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "The Pakistani meat looked and smelled bad.
"To the best of our knowledge,none of that meat got out of the plant. It was sheer luck that the inspector showed up when he did. For us to walk in and catch somebody is like finding a needle in a haystack.
"This has happened before [in the state], but on a very limited scale, maybe 10 pounds' worth," said Ms. Lyon. "But it probably goes on a lot more often than we see it. Companies have economic incentives to do this; you can buy Asian crab meat at $3 or $4 a pound and resell it for at least twice that amount.
"Overall we have very good processors who aren't out to defraud the consumer. We're out to target a few specifics," said Ms. Lyon.
Tideland, which remains open for business, voluntarily destroyed both the thawing meat and the shipment from Pakistan after the inspector's visit.
Until Friday, the state's only action was to send a letter to Mr. Fitzhugh advising him to provide the health department with any mitigating explanation for Tideland's actions.
Mr. Fitzhugh, 45, who has operated Tideland since 1979, indicated that his lawyer had been in touch with the health department.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Fitzhugh acknowledged what Tideland had done.
"I knew it was wrong, but it's not like I bought the crab meat on the black market," he said. "It was pasteurized. The lumps were as big as 50-cent pieces.
"I was just trying to satisfy my customers. I wouldn't sell anything that I wouldn't eat myself."
Tideland picks about 60,000 pounds of crab meat annually, which is distributed in the Baltimore,Washington and New York areas.
According to Mr. Fitzhugh, none of the re-packed crab was bound for Baltimore because "people know their crab meat up there."
Though Tideland, one of 50 licensed crab meat packers in Maryland, had no prior health violations, Ms. Lyon said she believes that it is in the state's best interest to take legal action.
"It would send a message to Mr. Fitzhugh and to other companies," she said.
The re-packing of crab meat in any form is illegal in Maryland. State law requires that all meat be picked directly into the containers that are sold to consumers.
One crab packer contacted by The Sun applauded the state's xTC action but said he could understand what Tideland did.
"In the last couple years, consumers have gotten so price-resistant that it's caused a big squeeze on us," said the packer, who did not want to be identified. "There's a lot of pressure on packers to import cheaper meat.
"This guy got caught red-handed. That's a rarity."
Mr. Fitzhugh said that Maryland's poor crab harvest this year was a factor in Tideland's actions.
"It was just economics," he said. "This has been one of the worst crabbing years ever, and for part of the year you don't have enough pickers to produce what you need anyway.
"It's one of those things," Mr. Fitzhugh said. "You do what you have to do to exist.
/# "Other people have done worse."