Few things say local like the Chesapeake blue crab.
It has scuttled its way into Maryland’s tourism slogan and is part of the region’s signature dish, proudly touted on menus and in markets as a taste of the Bay in an era when “eat local” has become the mantra of foodies.
But a few years ago, a tipster reached out to authorities with an unsavory allegation: A major Virginia seafood supplier was selling packages of premium Chesapeake blue crab meat cut with cheaper foreign crab. It wasn’t even the same species.
In an unusual probe, federal agents fanned out to markets across Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina, scooping up crab meat from Casey’s Seafood and sending it out for the type of DNA analysis more common in rape and murder cases.
The results would reveal the tip of what authorities say is a massive fraud worth millions of dollars, one so large it has shaken the food industry and raised questions about just how much of the iconic food labeled as local comes from the Chesapeake Bay.
Federal prosecutors allege in a case unsealed this year that the Newport News, Va., company sold a whopping 398,000 pounds of Chesapeake blue crab mixed with cut-rate crab from as far away as Indonesia or Brazil and labeled it as an American product. The retail value of the crab is roughly $14 million at current prices.
It is difficult to ascertain how widespread such problems are, but watermen, seafood suppliers, lawmakers and environmental groups have all expressed concerns about crab fraud in recent years and whether enough is being done to stop it. A 2015 report by Oceana, an international nonprofit focused on ocean conservation and advocacy, found that nearly 40 percent of crab cakes it tested that were labeled as local in area restaurants contained imported meat.
“It’s a species that’s well loved around the area,” said Kimberly Warner, the senior scientist at Oceana who authored the report. “The thought that we’ve all been subject to this fraud when we are enjoying what we think is a local product really hits home with diners in this region and undercuts the watermen.”
But it’s not just consumers and industry insiders who suffer. Oceana says the foreign crab that ends up in local products is sometimes illegally fished in an unsustainable fashion, such as via bottom trawling, that can kill fish and other species and deplete crab stocks.
Then, there’s the taste. Some chefs and crab aficionados say Chesapeake blue crabs are a cut above blue crabs found in warmer waters such as those in the Carolinas and Louisiana, as well as other similar species. Crab cakes made with other meats — or crab fakes as some have derisively taken to calling them — just don’t hold up.
“We are one of the farthest northern points they harvest the blue crab from,” said Steve Vilnit, vice president of marketing for Capital Seaboard, based in Jessup, Md. “Our crabs have to hibernate in the winter, and to do that, they have to put on fat. Just like with a piece of beef, fat gives it flavor.”
The cache of Chesapeake blues and the limited supply allow stores and restaurants to charge a premium. Investigators said that higher price point may have provided incentive for Casey’s to cheat in the current case. It may motivate others, too.
A federal agent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote in a search warrant that an informant told him Casey’s Seafood was trying to undercut the market because prices for Chesapeake blue crabs had climbed with their scarcity. The fraud allegedly occurred between 2012 and 2015.
James R. Casey, the company’s president, directed employees to remove foreign crab meat from packing containers and blend it with meat from another processor before placing the meat in containers labeled “Product of the USA,” according to court documents.
The employees also brazenly slapped “Product of the USA” stickers over the labels of the discarded cans that read “Product of Brazil” or “Product of China,” presumably to cover their tracks, according to court documents.
In 2015, federal agents scoured the Casey’s Seafood processing plant in Newport News, removing 17 bags and cans of crab meat labeled “Product of Vietnam,” invoices, computers and dozens of other items, according to court documents. After the action, Harris Teeter and Farm Fresh supermarkets announced that they were dropping Casey’s Seafood products.
Casey, 74, has been charged with violating the Lacey Act, a federal law on the labeling of fish and wildlife. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Casey’s attorney did not return requests for comment, and Casey’s listed phone number has been disconnected.
The way federal prosecutors filed the charge — as a “criminal information,” or a written accusation — indicates that they may be moving toward a plea deal with Casey. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment on the case. No hearing dates have been set.
In 2015, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), before her retirement, wrote to President Barack Obama urging greater regulation of crab processing to stamp out fraud.
“The fraudulent labeling of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean blue crab meat has a detrimental impact on an industry that plays an important role in the Virginia and Maryland economies,” they wrote.
At the time, the Obama administration was studying ways to monitor seafood imports and cut down on fraud — which, in addition to crabs, affects other sectors of the seafood industry.
New rules went into effect at the start of 2018, requiring importers to document that the catch is legally and sustainably caught.
The rules apply to blue crab, but not other species commonly mixed with it. And the regulations do not do much to combat fraud that occurs within the United States, such as a domestic processor mixing foreign crab with Chesapeake blue crab — the allegation against Casey.
Fraud has frustrated some crabbers.
Richard Young, who has been a commercial waterman since the early 1990s, and his wife, Lee Carrion, own Coveside Crabs in Dundalk, Md., where they have built a business selling only the premium crabs Young has caught.
Both said they consider crab fraud to be rampant. Carrion said she has seen retailers purportedly selling local crabs at the end of the year, even though crabbing is banned during the winter months, while Young says some suppliers and retailers supplement the catch. They say it undermines the integrity of the local product and leads to lower prices for their specialized offering.
“The demand is for Maryland crabs, and the Chesapeake just doesn’t produce enough to meet the demand, so they bring in the crabs and mix them with Maryland crabs,” Young said.
They said they want to see Maryland do a better job of enforcing a law that requires restaurants and markets to list the state where the crabs were caught when they have been labeled as local. Maryland does have a program called True Blue, which certifies 150 restaurants and retailers as selling mostly local crabmeat.
Jeff Gaetjen, fishmonger at BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in Northwest Washington, said he continually works with the same suppliers to ensure he gets an authentic local product. He said customers can also take a few steps to do the same.
“Always insist on fresh crab meat that’s not pasteurized,” Gaetjen said. “Go to a reputable fish store. Create a relationship with that person.”