Crab meat processor ordered to pay $5,000

January 14, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE -- In a first for Maryland, a seafood processor has been ordered to pay $5,000 for falsely labeling crab meat from Pakistan as fresh-picked from the Chesapeake Bay.

William Fitzhugh, owner of Tideland Seafood Inc., a Dorchester County packing house, also drew an unusual form of community service: He was ordered to instruct local students on the importance of state health and food regulations.

In District Court, Mr. Fitzhugh agreed to a plea arrangement in which he was found guilty of the two most serious of nine charges. The others were dropped.

In addition to the mislabeling charge, Mr. Fitzhugh pleaded guilty to improperly storing crab meat.

District Judge John L. Norton III fined him $10,000 and sentenced him to 15 days in jail, but suspended $5,000 of the fine and the jail sentence.

Officials say that no other licensed processor in Maryland has ever been prosecuted for repacking crab meat. In another case this year, a seafood distributor in Baltimore, not a packer, pleaded guilty to mislabeling crab meat and was fined $2,000.

Maryland law forbids the repacking of crab meat in any form. The meat must picked directly into the containers that go to consumers.

Judge Norton ordered Mr. Fitzhugh to arrange for students to tour his plant in Wingate once a year for the next three years where they are to be lectured on the importance of handling commercial seafood properly. Raymond Simmons, Mr. Fitzhugh's lawyer, said the first tour will be this spring.

Mr. Fitzhugh, 48, a former state police officer who quit law enforcement 14 years ago to enter the seafood business, said in court yesterday that he regreted violating the health code. "It was wrong and I'm glad to get back to normal," he said.

The charges against Mr. Fitzhugh stemmed from a routine inspection of Tideland Seafood last spring by Timothy McKee, an investigator for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mr. McKee found Tideland employees transferring nearly 400 pounds of frozen crab meat from Pakistan into plastic containers labeled as Maryland seafood. In addition, a reading taken by Mr. McKee indicated that the crab meat was being stored and processed in temperatures between 46 and 54 degrees -- well above the 38-degree maximum required by law.

Mr. McKee said yesterday it was the "luck of the draw" that he visited Tideland on the day the imported crab meat was being repacked.

State inspectors usually visit crab meat plants about once a month. Maryland has 50 such plants, concentrated on the Eastern Shore. Tideland, which had no prior health department violations, processes about 60,000 pounds of crab meat a year.

In pressing for the prosecution of Mr. Fitzhugh, state health department officials had said they hoped the case would deter others from repacking cheaper, imported crab meat and selling it at a big profit.

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