Volume 13, Issue 22 ~June 2 - 8, 2005
Crab Catch
by M.L. Faunce

Pick Maryland Crab
When crab is processed, labels lose their country of origin

From Baltimore to Solomons, Annapolis to Ocean City, who isn’t thinking steamed hard crabs — unless of course you’re thinking crab cakes. The word on Maryland waters over the Memorial Day weekend was that crabs were as scarce as hen’s teeth. Atlantic blue crabs come from the waters of many states besides Maryland. So when blue crabs aren’t biting in Maryland waters, crabs of the same species can be shipped in from the lower Bay in Virginia, even Louisiana, Texas and other southern states. Live or steamed, those are blue crabs you’re buying.

But for many crab lovers, that first taste of summer means crab cakes. The very name Maryland crab cakes has a special meaning in the national cuisine as well as a place in our history and our hearts.

No longer can you assume the crab meat you’re eating originates in Maryland. It’s often hard to tell even if you read labels.

Picked crab meat, fresh or pasteurized, in cups or pound cans, is labeled by country of origin. A new federal requirement also lets consumers know if a seafood product is wild or farm-raised.

But once that crab has been processed — which is defined as blending with another product, even spices — the product is then called value-added in the trade, and labeling becomes a different story. Where crab is involved, value-added can mean an entirely different species.

Asian imports now lead the market in sales here. The Asian, or blue swimming crab, is worlds apart from our indigenous Atlantic blue crab — literally, and by the measuring stick Marylanders use: taste. When crab is processed, or in industry jargon, substantially transformed, crab labeling loses its country of origin. Crab meat from anywhere else in the world made into crab cakes, soups, crab appetizers, crab quiche.

“Consumers need help in understanding the difference,” says Jack Brooks of the family-owned J.M. Clayton packing house in Cambridge since 1890.

Brooks cites a recent telling example. A couple from West Virginia on a tour boat “that came up the river and into the creek” stepped off and wandered into Clayton dockside packing house, curious about crab. There’s no more American crab, no such thing anymore as really Maryland crab meat, they reported their tour guide as saying.

A board member of USA American Blue Crab Association, Brooks set the visitors straight. But, he laments, “That’s the perception of the general public. Imported crab meat is having a huge impact on the Maryland and domestic industry.”

A few years ago, then-delegate Dick D’Amato of Annapolis appealed to the Maryland General Assembly for labeling to identify processed crab by country of origin. His legislation failed against heavy lobbying by some companies with processing plants around the world and importers of the cheaper Asian crab. Today, the colorful Pick Maryland Crab bumper stickers D’Amato’s used to promote truth in labeling have faded, but the problem has not. Then, as now, Maryland-style products sold this summer may not be from Maryland. If it’s not genuine U.S. crab, it’s definitely not Maryland crab.

Some local processors of the sweet blue crab meat — which made the Maryland crab cakes that once abundantly filled summer dinner tables at home and in restaurants — are promoting Chesapeake crabmeat as a gourmet delicacy to survive the everyday competition of cheaper, imported crab.

Find where to buy Maryland blue crab in a free, new brochure from Maryland Department of Agriculture Seafood Marketing Program: “Maryland Blue Crab, the Art of Buying, Preparing, Cooking, Picking and Storing.” Order at 888-841-5972 or online at www.mda.state.md.us (click first on Aquaculture and Seafood Products, then on Crabs).

This week’s Maryland crab meat source

J.W. Faidley Seafood

In Baltimore’s Lexington Market, family owned and operated since 1886 and famous for its crab cakes.
  • Backfin: $19.95 the pound
  • Lump: $23.95 the pound
  • Jumbo Lump: $31.95 the pound

Annapolis Seafood Market

With locations in Annapolis, Edgewater, Severna Park:

  • Backfin: $24.99 the pound
  • Lump: $29.99 the pound
  • Jumbo Lump: $38.99 the pound

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