Iconic Mississippi restaurant to pay USD 1.35 million for mislabeling seafood

A historic plaque for Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant
A historic plaque for Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant | Photo courtesy of Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant
4 Min

A co-owner of historic Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S.A.-based Mary Mahoney’s Old French House restaurant has pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, misbranding seafood, and wire fraud and will pay USD 1.35 million (EUR 1.2 million) in fines.

Anthony Cvitanovich, who was also the restaurant’s general manager, pled guilty to the felony charges on 30 May, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi.

Four co-conspirators, including an unnamed supplier and wholesaler that allegedly supplied the mislabeled seafood, were also named in the indictment. Court documents specifically identified a Biloxi-based wholesale and retail business that sold seafood to restaurants, casinos, and the public, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Mahoneys, founded in 1962, admitted to selling frozen imported fish from Africa, India, and South America and advertising them as locally sourced premium species between December 2013 and November 2019, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Cvitanovich admitted that between 2018 and 2019, he was involved in mislabeling approximately 17,190 pounds of fish sold at the restaurant.

“The scheme involved the fraudulent sale of fish by Mahoneys and its wholesale supplier that was described on Mahoneys menu as premium higher-priced local species, such as snapper and grouper from the Gulf of Mexico, when the fish was actually other species from abroad, including Lake Victoria Perch from Africa, Triple Tail from Suriname, and Unicorn Filefish from India,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Genetic testing of fish by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the fraudulent scheme.

U.S. consumers expect their seafood to be correctly identified. When sellers purposefully substitute one fish species for another, they deceive consumers and cause potential food safety hazards to be overlooked or misidentified by processors or end users,” U.S. FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Miami Field Office Special Agent in Charge Justin Fielder said. We will continue to investigate and bring to justice those who put profits above public health.”

Mary Mahoneys and Cvitanovich are scheduled to be sentenced on 12 September. The restaurant faces a maximum penalty of five years' probation and a USD 500,000 (EUR 461,000) fine – or not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or twice the gross loss, whichever is greater, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Cvitanovich faces a maximum penalty of three years of prison and a USD 10,000 (EUR 9,200) fine.

In November 2019, FDA agents executed a search warrant at the restaurant. Mary Mahoney’s Co-Owner Bobby Mahoney said at the time he believed the search warrant was linked to fish mislabeling but claimed the restaurant did nothing wrong, according to the Sun Herald. He said Mary Mahoneys listed red snapper on its menu and there are probably 50 to 60 varieties of red snapper globally.

Myself, I think its very trivial,” Mahoney told the Sun Herald.

Over the past five years, the restaurant has had “extensive discussions with the federal government over inaccurate entree descriptions of a certain item on our menu,” he said. 

Tim Holleman, who represents Cvitanovich, told the Sun Herald in May 2024 that all mislabeling issues at the restaurant were corrected five years ago.

Mary Mahoneys will continue doing what we have done best since 1964, which is serving our valued customers with impeccable service. We take pride in serving the highest-quality steaks and seafood in a beautifully preserved, historic home,” Holleman said.

However, U.S. Attorney Todd W. Gee of the Southern District of Mississippi said the charges will deter future mislabeling fraud.

“Mislabeling food and defrauding customers are serious crimes, and this case will help convince restaurants and seafood suppliers that it is not worth lying to customers about what is on the menu,” Gee said. When people spend their hard-earned dollars to enjoy the incredible local seafood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they should get what they paid for – not frozen fish from overseas.”

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