Oceana: Blue crab mislabeling rampant in Chesapeake area

Oceana on Wednesday revealed another study of seafood fraud in the U.S. market, this time focusing on crab cakes, a traditional favorite in the Chesapeake Bay region. According to DNA tests of multiple samples taken from area restaurants, 38 percent of those samples were not made with the locally caught blue crab as advertised.

“It may be April Fools’ Day, but this is no joke. Not even the prized Maryland crab cake is safe from seafood fraud,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana and one of the report’s authors. “When diners purchase a Maryland crab cake, they don’t expect to get an imported substitute. 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.”

Oceana, which is hosting a Twitter chat on seafood fraud today at 2 p.m. EST, said it found mislabeled crab cakes in every city it tested, including 47 percent in Annapolis, Md.; 46 percent in Baltimore, Md.; and 39 percent in Washington, D.C. Overall, 90 crab cake samples were collected from 86 restaurants during the 2014 Maryland crab season.

The group contends that most of the imported substitute products are fished unsustainably. Samples were considered mislabeled if they were described on the menu or confirmed by the server as containing blue crab or crab sourced from Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay region, but were comprised of a different crab species. Crab cakes were not considered mislabeled if “local” or “blue crab” was not explicitly stated on the menu or confirmed by the server.

“We found that consumers trying to order blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay are often getting an entirely different species from half way around the world,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at Oceana. “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 report’s other findings include:

  • 48 percent of the crab cakes tested used swimming crab species from the Indo-Pacific region (44 percent) and the Mexican Pacific coast (4 percent);
  • Eight species other than blue crab were detected;
  • The most frequently mislabeled crab cakes were those labeled as “Maryland,” followed by those referred to as “blue crab.”
  • Nearly half of the species found in the crab cakes are listed as species to “avoid” on consumer sustainable seafood guides, while the real Maryland blue crab is considered a “best choice” or “good alternative” depending on where and how it was caught.

The report drew some sharp criticism from the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), which said Oceana did not present any evidence that imported crab was or is mislabeled.

“This is a story about restaurants mislabeling product on their menu. Attempts to point fingers at the convenient and faceless boogeyman known as ‘imports’ is inaccurate,” said NFI, adding that Department of Commerce statistics show that imported seafood helps to create jobs and benefit the economy in more ways than domestic product. “Imported crab meat is a good thing for Maryland and not the interloper it has been described as. The mislabeling they found is not happening overseas — menus and chalkboards in local restaurants are not printed in Indonesia.”


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