Blue crab, the Chesapeake Bay’s most iconic edible species, also appears to be its most impersonated on menus in the region that say they’re selling local seafood.
A report released today by the conservation nonprofit Oceana found that 38 percent of crab cakes labeled as local were comprised of an entirely different species of crab, predominantly imported from the Indo-Pacific region. In Annapolis and Baltimore, nearly 50 percent of “Maryland” or “Chesapeake Bay” crab cakes were mislabeled.
After releasing seafood fraud reports that found similar levels of mislabeling among certain fish and shrimp, DC-based Oceana decided to tackle a beloved species that's close to home.
Their team used DNA analysis to determine the species used in 90 crab cakes sourced from restaurants across the region, mostly during August and September 2014.
“I’ve put a lot of seafood in my purse over the last few years,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, author of the report and a senior scientist at Oceana who’s lived in the Chesapeake Bay region for years.
The samples she and other testers collected were shipped to a lab in Florida that determined whether the cakes contained blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, and, if not, which species were used instead.
Warner said the fraud rate of 38 percent is a conservative estimate, because the DNA testing couldn’t confirm the geographical origin of the blue crab and whether it was from Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay. The same species of blue crabs is also caught as far north as Canada and south as Argentina.
“So all we could say is, ‘Yes, it’s blue crab,’ but not, ‘Yes, it came from the Chesapeake Bay,’” Warner said.
Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said the mislabeling on restaurant menus in the region amounts to a species bait-and-switch that hurts the local crabbing industry.
“These consumers think they’re voting with their fork and supporting a local industry, and they’re being deceived,” said Vilnit, who launched in 2012 the state’s True Blue campaign, a voluntary program that has certified nearly 200 establishments committed to serving Maryland blue crabmeat.
Because the report does not detail where the crab cakes came from, Vilnit said it’s hard to tell whether any of them were participants in the True Blue campaign.
“With the amount of restaurants they did, I’m sure at least one was on the True Blue campaign, and hopefully the ones they tested came back positive” for blue crab, he said.
On the Eastern Shore, just 9 percent of the cakes were mislabeled, while 39 percent were misrepresented on menus in Washington, D.C. Vilnit said he was shocked to see 48 percent of crab cakes mislabeled in Annapolis, where “the people are very connected to the water and probably assume that restaurants are using local.”
John Rorapaugh, sustainable director at seafood supplier ProFish, said he thinks the report will encourage more restaurants to reconsider their sourcing and menu descriptions.
Mislabeling “is being done because it’s easier to sell a Maryland crabcake than one from the Philippines or Vietnam,” he said.
ProFish recently began using its own DNA-testing equipment to verify the species of crab and other fish that arrive at its warehouses, which Vilnit said is an example of where the industry should be headed.
For the blue crab report, Oceana purchased crab cakes from 82 restaurants, two markets, two sporting establishments and one catering truck. While Oceana’s work has found that much mislabeling occurs before imported seafood even reaches the United States, Vilnit thinks blue crab fraud is perpetuated in these restaurants’ kitchens.
Restaurants stand to benefit financially from sourcing a cheaper crabmeat and labeling it as local and blue. The average price of jumbo lump crab cakes advertised as coming from the Maryland region was $2.12 higher than those not specifying region or species, “indicating a clear economic gain from this swap,” the report found.
Chesapeake Bay blue crabs were harder to come by in 2014, at least initially, which also played into mislabeling. Bad years for the blue crab make paying more for a less valuable product even worse for consumers, the report said.
The price for a single jumbo lump crabcake in the region in 2014 ranged from $11.50 to $30 and was often the most expensive item on the menu at restaurants visited for the report.
The True Blue campaign requires that restaurants serve Maryland meat 75 percent of the time, Vilnit said. But that doesn’t mean they should lie when they don’t have blue crab to serve or that they always have to serve lump meat, which is the most expensive. Ocean Odyssey in Cambridge offers both lump and back fin crab cakes on its menu at varying price points, taking advantage of more of the blue crab’s meat.
Last week, Ryleigh’s Oyster’s three locations in Baltimore made true on their commitment to local fare by taking crab cakes off the menus until the local option becomes available. The Chesapeake Bay blue crab season opens today and, while processors pasteurize local meat for sale year-round, the restaurant had run out of the true blue.
Maryland lawmakers did consider encouraging commitments to local products this year with a bill that would have required restaurants and grocery stores to label seafood by its country of origin. The bill, sponsored by Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, did not make it to a vote this session but could be considered in the future, according to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which lobbied on its behalf.
The Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry is paying close attention to a report released in late March detailing how the Obama administration plans to reduce international seafood fraud. Its impact on local fisheries, which already adhere to stricter traceability standards than other regions, would be muted. But more traceability across the industry would help level the playing field for more expensive, locally sourced products.
A presidential Task Force on Combating IUU (illegal, underreported and unregulated) Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its action plan at an industry trade show in Boston, which will be open to public comment and input from the industry in the coming months. The report lays out how the Obama administration could tighten regulations governing seafood imports, which often arrive mislabeled or carrying products that have been illegally or overly fished.
Until then, Oceana’s Warner encourages customers to ask questions when ordering seafood, whether at the grocery store, a restaurant or, increasingly, the farmers market.
“If you know the person catching or growing your food, there’s a far better chance of getting something honestly labeled than if it comes from thousands of miles away and has passed through 10 different hands before it reaches your dinner plate,” she said.
Read the full blue crab report at www.Oceana.org.