OCEAN CITY — As Maryland’s blue crab season opened this week, a national conservation and consumer advocacy group released a study confirming a significant number of the crab cakes and other dishes featuring the iconic crustacean around the state, including Ocean City, are fraudulently mislabeled and misrepresented.
On Wednesday, Oceana, a nationwide conservation group, announced the results of a study the agency conducted across Maryland in 2014. Oceana scientists collected crab cakes from 86 restaurants across the state that were labeled as, or referred to on menus or by servers as, Maryland blue crab throughout 2014. DNA testing confirmed that 38 percent of the 90 crab cakes collected from 86 restaurants throughout the state that were presented as Maryland blue crab contained imported substitutes and were mislabeled and misidentified.
“It may be April Fools’ Day, but this is no joke,” said Oceana Senior Campaign Director Beth Lowell on Wednesday. “Not even the prized Maryland crab cake is safe from seafood fraud. When diners purchase a Maryland crab cake, they don’t expect to get an imported substitute.”
Oceana found mislabeled crab cakes in every city it tested with some coming in with higher percentages than others. Ironically, in Annapolis, the state capital where lawmakers have claimed the Maryland blue crab as the state crustacean, 47 percent of the crab cakes tested contained imported substitutes.
In Baltimore, home of the iconic Old Bay seasoning, 46 percent of the crab cakes tested was found to be fraudulent. Washington, D.C. came in at 39 percent, while Ocean City came in right at the state average of 38 percent. Only nine percent of the crab cakes collected by Oceana across other areas of the Eastern Shore were found to be mislabeled or misrepresented, perhaps because of their close proximity to the Chesapeake and its seafood packaging plants.
Crab cakes were considered to be mislabeled if they were described on the menu or confirmed by a server as containing blue crab or as sourced from Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay region, but were confirmed to be comprised of completely different crab species.
It’s important to note many restaurants and seafood outlets offer crab cakes and other crab-related dishes made from crabmeat from other species imported from other areas all over the world. While there may be no substitute for fresh local Maryland crabmeat, with a short season, price fluctuations and other uncertainties, the imported crabmeat offers a stable and readily available alternative for some.
Many restaurants and other seafood outlets do not hide the fact their products do not always include local Maryland crabmeat, while others offer the rather nebulous “Maryland style” crab cake description. The Oceana study released this week is more about those that blatantly and falsely represent their products as made from local Maryland crabmeat. Lowell said aside from the obvious deceit, misrepresenting imported crab meat from other species and other countries has a decided economic effect.
“This type of fraud, species substitution, inflates the price for consumers, parades imported and sometimes illegally caught crab as local, prevents consumers from making sustainable seafood choices and harms the livelihoods of local watermen and seafood businesses.”
Dr. Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana who authored the report, said many consumers are being falsely misled into believing the crab cakes they are eating around Maryland are made from local crabmeat.
“We found that consumers trying to order blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay are often getting an entirely different species from halfway around the world,” she said. “Consumers simply don’t know enough about what they’re eating and substituting imported species for local blue crab can cost them a premium.”
The Oceana study attempted to purchase only local blue crab, but its testing found 48 percent of the crab cakes tested used crab species from the Indo-Pacific region. The study found eight different species other than blue crab present in the crab cakes purchased from across the state.
The most frequently mislabeled crab cakes were identified as “Maryland” followed closely by those identified as “blue crab.” Nearly half of the species found in the tested crab cakes were listed as a species to avoid in accepted seafood guides, while Maryland blue crab is considered a “best choice” or “good alternative” depending on where and how it was caught. While some restaurants are clearly guilty of misrepresenting their dishes as Maryland crab on menus and server presentations, the study found that much of the crab destined for the U.S. arrives at the border already mislabeled.
Last month, a presidential task force released an action plan and final recommendation for cracking down on seafood fraud and illegal fishing. Lowell said while the idea is good conceptually, there are clearly challenges in the implementation.
“Without traceability that requires important information to follow blue crabs from the bay to the dinner plate, this type of fraud will continue to occur,” she said. “Oceana is now calling on the task force to put its words into action to require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S., including blue crabs, to ensure that it’s safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.”
While fresh, local Maryland crabmeat is a staple around the state, it is not the most popular seafood nationwide. Last year, Oceana released a study revealing America’s favorite seafood was shrimp and similar data suggested roughly 30 percent was mislabeled or misrepresented out of the 143 products tested.
Meanwhile, Maryland lawmakers have taken their own crack at ending seafood deception and fraud. Last year, the Maryland Seafood Authenticity and Enforcement Act was introduced in the General Assembly aimed at making certain consumers in the state were purchasing and eating seafood while knowing what it was specifically and where it came from, but the bill never made it out of the House. This year, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate, but just this week got an unfavorable report from a Senate committee.
While the bill would have applied to all seafood offered for sale in Maryland, its roots were clearly in the iconic Maryland blue crab. Most in the industry fairly represent their crab products as Maryland blue crab and many others offer similar crab products while rightfully identifying the product’s species and state or nation of origin. However, others misrepresent their products as Maryland blue crab in a sort of bait-and-switch either intentionally or unintentionally. The legislation would have taken the guess work out of the equation for consumers and forced seafood processors, restaurants and other entities offering seafood for sale in Maryland to carefully identify its species and origin.