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Watermen say mislabeling harms local crab business

Imported crab meat labeled as a Chesapeake Bay product will not fool  local seafood connoisseurs who have grown up eating Maryland crab cakes and picking blue crab meat.

But the average shopper might see two containers reading “crab meat” and pick the cheaper option, without considering where the meat’s origin. Some seafood packaging facilities have been misidentifying foreign crab meat, then selling it a fraction of the cost of authentic blue crab meat — worrying local watermen and restaurateurs who make a living on the seafood industry.

“If you can import something and market it as crab meat, people will buy it because it’s cheap. They don’t buy it because it’s good,” said Bill Devine, co-owner of Faidley’s Seafood in Baltimore. “It’s just a sociological, financial part of the business.”

Now, a bipartisan team of Chesapeake Bay-area legislators wants to stop what the group says are misleading labeling practices when it comes to crab meat.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and three Virginia legislators last week sent a letter to Barack Obama to request that the administration include deceptive labeling in a White House task force focusing on illegal fishing and seafood fraud.

Mikulski — along with Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-Va.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) — wrote that some processors import foreign crab meat and label it as a U.S. product after repackaging it.

“As a result, domestically harvested crabmeat is competing against the less expensive foreign crabmeat fraudulently labeled as a ‘product of the United States,’” the lawmakers wrote. “Deceptive labeling misleads customers and threatens the livelihood of the watermen in our states.”

Faidley’s Seafood in the past bought “hundreds of pounds” of Maryland crab meat to sell directly to customers, Devine. But the introduction of foreign crab meat has hurt the blue crab market. The price of authentic Chesapeake Bay blue crab meat, he said, is about 20 or 30 percent higher than imported meat. Average shoppers, who often want to find the best bang for their buck, might not understand the different varieties of crabs around the world, Devine said.

Imported crab meat prices have been exceptionally high this year, too, said Aubrey Vincent, who runs Lindy’s Seafood in Woolford, Maryland, with her father. She said facilities that pack domestic products are feeling pressure to cut corners to keep prices competitive.

“We’re in the same boat as other seafood houses. We have a good product, but it’s a really tough market to sell,” Vincent said. “They’re looking at the bottom line — the cost. We can’t process domestic products as cheaply as imported products.”

On the state level, legislators in February introduced a bill, which failed to advance, that would have made it illegal to knowingly mislabel seafood and would have required processors to identify a crab product’s origin. And in 2012, the Department of Natural Resources launched a “True Blue” program that certifies restaurants and markets that serve or sell Maryland blue crab products.

Addressing deceptive labeling helps ensure a higher quality product, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

“I think (Mikulski) is doing an excellent job not only to protect our resources of the state of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay but also to protect the consumer,” Brown said. “We want to make sure they get what they’re paying for.”