ANNAPOLIS – Marylanders — lawmakers included — take their crabs very seriously, which prompted a legislative proposal that would let residents know when their “Maryland style” crabcakes aren’t the real deal.
Some members of the seafood and restaurant industries fear that legislation introduced in the state House of Delegates proposing tighter regulations on seafood labeling could be impractical and costly for Maryland restaurants.
Currently, the Maryland Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as well as guidelines set in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibit mislabeling of seafood products. But, in an effort to inform consumers about what they’re eating and where it’s coming from, legislation has been introduced in the House Environmental Matters Committee to propose even tighter regulations on the labeling of seafood products, such as the requirement that restaurants clearly display state of origin for all seafood and state or country of origin for crab products on a sign or menu.
The bill, however, has met many opponents throughout the seafood and restaurant industry, most of whom cite the potential costs and inconveniences the regulations could impose on restaurants.
Andrew Parks, owner of Annapolis seafood restaurant Sam’s on the Waterfront, said he has “no doubt” that there are restaurant owners who are not totally honest about how their food is sourced or where it was coming from, but said the proposed legislation might not be realistic.
“I’m sure people serve farmed fish and say it’s wild and vice versa, I think that’s just an ethical issue — they shouldn’t be doing it but I don’t know that our time is [best] spent trying to regulate that,” he said. “What do you do about the people who are serving blended cod or processed food? The fish could come from 10 different places.”
The biggest issue in Maryland surrounds one of the state’s icons: the blue crab.
Because Maryland crab is seasonal — and therefore not always available — restaurants often label a crabcake as “Maryland style,” though they’re using meat from other states or countries.
Although the Department of Natural Resources has not taken a stance on the legislation, Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries for the department, said that only about 2 percent to 4 percent of crab in the country actually comes from Maryland.
According to some opponents of the bill, however, this issue is unavoidable, and isn’t worth the costs and inconveniences of implementing new rules.
“We source crab based on where it’s available in the market,” Melvin Thompson, a senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, told the committee. “We’d love to have Maryland crab featured all the time, it’s just not available. Sometimes we will have to substitute and sometimes we don’t know until we actually receive that delivery.”
Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, agreed, saying the legislation “ignores the reality of restaurant sourcing.”
“Off the top of my head, I could name nine different places a restaurant could source crab. No restaurants should be expected to have nine different menus at-the-ready based on what crab they’re using in their crabcake sandwich,” Gibbons said. “It’s cost prohibitive and it doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Gibbons also suggested that a “Maryland-style” crabcake that’s sourced from places other than Maryland really isn’t “fraudulent” at all, asking: “When you purchase a Philly cheesesteak, are you under the impression it was made in Philadelphia?”
Some who take issue with the legislation also say that the source of the switch may be hard to identify; in other words, it’s hard to tell whether the restaurant or retailer is mislabeling the food, or if it’s coming misidentified from the supplier.
“There are no restaurants — at least no members of ours — that intentionally mislabel fish,” Thompson said. “If fish is misidentified or mislabeled, usually that is a problem that happens at the wholesale level.”
In contrast, Craig Sewell, chef and owner of Annapolis seafood restaurant A Cook’s Cafe, disagrees with this argument.
“You have to trust the people that are your suppliers,” he said.
Unlike most restaurant owners, however, Sewell knows his local supplier — Gaylord Clark, owner of Two Oceans True Foods — personally, and only sells crab products while Maryland crab is in season. Sewell also favors the legislation, saying that the idea that the regulations would be too costly or inconvenient for restaurants is “silly.”
“We’re selling people things that they put in their mouth — they sustain them, they nourish them, they should be healthy for them,” he said. “The more people can know about where their food is sourced, how it is raised and if it has any additives to it — that’s all good. People need to know.”