Seafood Company Charged for Mislabeling Blue Crab Meat

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Public Domain. Wikimedia/Jeff Costlow

Capt. Neill's Seafood Inc. said its blue crab meat was American-grown, but it was imported from South America and Asia.

A North Carolina-based seafood producer has been charged with mislabeling crabmeat. Phillip R. Carawan, owner and president of Capt. Neill’s Seafood Inc., ordered his employees to label crabmeat from South America and Asia as a product of the United States. Carawan said he did this in the off-season (from November to March) because there was not enough domestically-raised blue crab to meet customer demand. He made a little over US$4 million in doing so between 2012 and 2015.

As Jessica Fu reports for The New Food Economy, fraud is not uncommon when it comes to the prized blue crab. "In 2015, Oceana — a marine conservation nonprofit — tested the DNA of 90 crab cake samples sourced from restaurants in the Chesapeake Bay region and found that 38 percent labeled as locally sourced actually contained imported meat." Other suppliers have also been found mixing imported crab meat with American-sourced products.

This problem doesn't stop with crabmeat; it's rampant in many types of seafood. In 2013 Oceana found that 59 percent of tuna sold in grocery stores and restaurants is not actual tuna, and 87 percent of snapper isn't snapper. Earlier this year, a study found endangered shark meat in 90 percent of British fish and chip shops. So it's not unusual to get something different from what you might think when you're eating seafood.

The fraud is a byproduct of an industry that's veiled in secrecy. A practice called transshipment, which involves transferring seafood from a large 'factory' ship to another smaller one while on the high seas, further obscures the origins of food, as it receives minimal oversight and is still conducted in old-fashioned ways, i.e. non-digitized, with a (potentially corrupt) captain signing off on a piece of paper. This also makes it difficult to track the quantities of species being harvested and can lead to overfishing – a problem that we already know to be serious.

In the meantime, Carawan could face up to five years in prison and a fine that is "twice the gross gain of the offense, which in this case, is $8,165,682.00" (via U.S. Department of Justice). The sentence will be determined in January 2020. Regardless of the outcome, it is a stern reminder to other seafood processors that accurate labeling is crucial and to customers that sourcing one's food from trustworthy, traceable producers should always be a priority.