Sending notice to seafood companies throughout Maryland, the state has filed charges against an Eastern Shore man accused of mislabeling nearly 400 pounds of imported crab meat.
William Fitzhugh, owner of Tideland Seafood Inc., faces nine counts of violating state health laws, stemming from an inspection of his plant last spring.
At that time, a state investigator found Tideland employees transferring frozen crab meat from Pakistan into plastic containers labeled as Maryland's own.
The investigator also discovered 91 one-pound cups of partially frozen crab meat thawing in the Tideland plant in Wingate, Dorchester County. The labels on those cups suggested that the meat came from other seafood plants, including one on the Eastern Shore that shut down in 1990.
Maryland law forbids the repacking of crab meat in any form. State law requires that all meat be picked directly into the containers that are bought by consumers.
State officials said that Mr. Fitzhugh's trial, scheduled for Jan. 4 in District Court in Cambridge, affords a rare opportunity to prosecute a seafood packer who was caught mislabeling meat.
Michael C. Maloney, state's attorney for Dorchester County, said this was the first such case he has heard about.
The charges against Mr. Fitzhugh, all misdemeanors, include misbranding crab meat, false advertising, adulterating crab meat, sale or possession of unfit crab meat, and storing crab meat above certified temperatures.
If found guilty of all charges, Mr. Fitzhugh could face a maximum of six years and 90 days in jail and/or fines of up to $72,000.
Asked for his comment on the charges against him, Mr. Fitzhugh hung up the telephone on a reporter.
"It's very, very strong evidence. We don't have many cases that get this far," said Jeanette B. Lyon, acting chief of the division of food control of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"To find someone [mislabeling crab meat] was a real prize for us."
State officials said they hoped the case would serve to keep other seafood packers and shippers from repacking cheaper, imported crab meat in Maryland cups and selling it at a profit. Asian crab meat regularly sells for $3 to $4 a pound, roughly half the market price of Maryland crab.
In another case last month, the owners of Belvedere Seafood Inc. of Baltimore pleaded guilty to mislabeling crab meat and were fined $2,000. Belvedere ships crab meat but does not process it.
"I suspect that [repacking] does happen, though not every day," Ms. Lyon said. "There are a few people who, from time to time, we feel are not adhering to regulations.
"This [Tideland] case could act as a deterrent. It could send a message that we are serious about enforcing the laws that crab meat be packed under proper conditions."
Tideland is one of 50 licensed crab meat packers in Maryland. The company, which had no prior health violations, processes about 60,000 pounds of crab meat each year.
"This case has created a real interest within the industry," Ms. Lyon said.