Senators Urge Tighter Regs On Blue Crabmeat Fraud

OCEAN CITY — U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and her colleagues in Virginia last week fired off a letter to the Obama Administration urging stronger tracking and enforcement of fraudulently labeled Chesapeake and Atlantic Ocean crabmeat flooding many markets in the region.

Last Tuesday, Mikulski was joined by three colleagues from Virginia in urging the federal government to strengthen traceability requirements for fraudulently labeled seafood, most specifically, iconic Chesapeake Bay crabmeat, in an effort to protect hard-working and law abiding watermen in the two states. The letter sent on Tuesday comes on the heels of report released in July by a presidential task force charged with developing recommendations to combat illegal fishing and seafood labeling fraud.

While Mikulski and her colleagues praised the task force’s efforts, they voiced concern the proposed enforcement actions did not go far enough to protect the multi-million blue crab industry in Maryland and Virginia. According to the letter, the fraudulent labeling of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean blue crabmeat is having a detrimental impact on the industry that plays an important role in the economies of the two states, generating nearly $60 million in Maryland and $30 million in Virginia annually.

In April, Oceana, a nationwide conservation group, released a report outlining 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, including Ocean City, which were presented as Maryland blue crab contained imported substitutes and were mislabeled and misidentified.

In response, a presidential task force was convened to develop recommendations to combat seafood labeling fraud. The task force issued 15 draft recommendations including strengthening enforcement and enhancing enforcement tools, creating and expanding partnerships with non-federal entities, and increasing information on seafood products through additional traceability requirements. The task force followed up by releasing a draft list of “at risk” species, including Maryland blue crab, that will be included in the first phase of the seafood traceability program.

However, the letter sent by Mikulski and her colleagues this week suggested the recommendations do not go far enough in that seafood would not be tracked beyond the first domestic point of sale. Instead, the letter urges the task force to adopt “bait to plate” tracking for blue crab from its original source to the consumer.

“This deceptive labeling misleads consumers and threatens the livelihood of watermen in our states,” the letter reads. “We have a duty to protect the efforts of our honest fishermen and the economic gains from this resource.”

According to the letter, bait to plate tracking would prevent dishonest seafood processors from importing less expensive foreign crabmeat and repackaging it for sale to consumers as a product of Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay.

“The result is that domestically harvested crabmeat is competing against less expensive foreign crabmeat fraudulently labeled as a product of the United States,” the letter reads. “In order to address the issue of mislabeled crabmeat, the final regulation should not end traceability and tracking at the first point of sale, but must follow seafood along the entire supply chain from bait to plate.”