Photo by Flickr user Benjamin Wilson/Creative Commons
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A Maryland blue crab, trying to escape its fate.
Photo by Flickr user Benjamin Wilson/Creative Commons

Crab Cake Customers Get the Bait and Switch

When customers come into BlackSalt, Pearl Dive, or any of the Black Restaurant Group‘s other upscale Washington, D.C. restaurants hankering for crab, more often than not they are hoping to dig into some fresh blue crabs that were caught locally, says M.J. Gimbar, the group’s chief fishmonger.

“In the D.C.-Maryland area, people want Maryland crab cakes,” says Gimbar. But they’re not always getting what they think they’re getting.

Gimbar works with trusted local suppliers to fill that demand when blue crabs are in season in Maryland and Virginia. The rest of the year, he sources the same species of crab from Florida and Gulf Coast states, while being transparent about where it was caught. But not everyone in the industry plays crabs so straight.

Many competitors with larger operations or those who don’t take the time to personally visit their suppliers, as Gimbar does, often end up serving different species of crabs. This “fools consumers,” he warns. Even National Geographic fellow and sustainable seafood chef Barton Seaver was recently duped into serving Indonesian crab when he thought he had bought some freshly plucked out of the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, a study released by the advocacy group Oceana on Wednesday highlights the scope of this problem. Oceana staffers ordered crab cakes from 86 restaurants in Maryland and D.C. during the height of the 2014 crab season (late summer) and then conducted DNA testing on them. They found that 38 percent of the crabcakes were mislabeled.

Instead of the treasured blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), many of the crab cakes were made with eight other species of crabs, most imported from Indonesia or Mexico. Some of those species are fished less sustainably than the tightly regulated U.S. crab industry, notes Kimberly Warner, the report’s author, which makes it harder for consumers who are trying to reduce their impact on the ocean (check out Nat Geo’s seafood decision guide).

Warner found the problem was the worst in Annapolis, where 47 percent of the crab cakes tested were mislabeled, followed by Baltimore (46 percent), and Washington (39 percent). On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, only nine percent of the crab tested was mislabeled. People there grew up eating local crabs and are likely to be harder to fool, suggests Warner.

A Wider Problem

Oceana has previously released reports on seafood fraud in shrimp and fish nationwide, and the group’s work has helped spur the Obama Administration to develop a plan to require more transparency in the industry. Since more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. originates overseas, and much of what is caught locally is actually processed abroad, it’s a complex system of trade that has many opportunities for deceit or confusion.

In fact, Warner says a search of records suggested that most of the mislabeling had happened before the crab entered the country, meaning chefs likely didn’t know what they were really serving.

Steve Vilnit, the marketing director for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, says he’s disappointed that some businesses “are trying to make it seem like they are using local crab meat when they aren’t.” He adds, “Everyone assumes that because we are right next to the bay all our crabs come from there, but it’s actually only a small percentage.”

How to Pick Crabs

Vilnit says there is a bill in the Maryland statehouse that would require country of origin labeling in restaurants, although he admits that with the current opacity in the seafood distribution system, “enforcement might be a challenge.”

In the meantime, consumers can look for outlets that participate in the state’s voluntary “true blue” program, in which retailers certify via invoices that they buy local crabs.

Warner says it’s easy to tell crab species apart when dealing with the whole animal, since they look different. If the meat is removed or cooked it’s a harder task, although people with tuned palates can often detect a difference in taste and texture. In general, true blue crab tends to form less uniform lumps than most of the imported imposters.

Oceana’s Warner suggests that consumers looking for the real thing shop along the Eastern Shore, where mislabeling is less rampant. And she suggests asking suppliers pointed questions about where the crab came from.

Going forward, Warner says the government needs to require more comprehensive labeling of seafood through its entire chain of custody, so consumers are provided with more accurate information about what they’re eating.

Ultimately, trust in the supply chain is also going to make or break Maryland’s crab fishery, says Vilnit, which is an important economic driver and part of the identity of the region. Chesapeake watermen suffer from unfair competition from mislabeling of less expensive products, says Vilnit. “And consumers don’t get what they pay for.”