McDonald's goes fishing outside Md. Watermen angry at crab cake recipe

June 23, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Maybe McDonald's should put curry powder instead of bay seasoning in its new crab cake.

The giant fast-food chain confirmed yesterday that 83 percent of the crab in its "Maryland style" crab cake sandwich is now being imported from seafood packing houses in India.

Saying consumer surveys last year showed that McDonald's first-ever crab cake -- which featured only meat from Chesapeake Bay crabs -- failed to win the hearts and palates of customers, company officials said they changed the recipe to appeal to patrons at their Eastern Shore restaurants this summer.

McDonald's defends the change, noting that 17 percent of the meat used in the $3.29 sandwich comes from domestic or Mid-Atlantic sources and includes an unspecified measure of blue crab lump meat, considered to be the tastiest part of the crustacean.

"I had them last year and I've tried them this year. The new one is better," said Chuck Tildon, the assistant marketing supervisor for McDonald's Baltimore region.

But Joseph L. Bernard, president and co-founder of Wye River Inc. in Queen Anne's County, calls the new crab cake "far inferior" to the $2.99 version his seafood seasoning company supplied McDonald's last year.

Mr. Bernard, who is no longer associated with McDonald's, says he has received complaints about the crab cake from fast-food customers and local commercial watermen who think Wye River is still involved in production of the sandwich.

"We have learned," he said, "that some watermen, who are not aware we no longer make the crab cake, are complaining about importation of crabs by us and our association with a crab cake they consider foreign and inferior."

McDonald's switch from using only the Chesapeake's feisty blue crab -- which local seafood lovers boast has the tastiest meat of any crab -- to the Indian import is seen in some circles as more than just a sacrilege in the kitchen.

"If the crab cake tastes really lousy, people who are eating crab for the first time may never try it again. That's not good for the industry," said William F. Sieling, chief of the state Department of Agriculture's Seafood Marketing Division.

Mr. Sieling said he had heard rumors that McDonald's had stopped using only blue crab in the sandwiches, but that he and seafood industry leaders have no authority to do anything about it.

"Obviously, they would like to see American crab meat -- and preferably theirs -- used in this product," he said. "If they use foreign crab meat, obviously it won't benefit our suppliers."

Larry Simns, a commercial waterman and president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, agreed. "Sure, it hurts the watermen," he said. "It is that much more market that the watermen don't have.

Mr. Tildon, a Baltimore native, said he understands Marylanders' jingoistic attitude about their crabs. But, he said, imported crab meat has been used as a supplement in Maryland restaurant crab dishes for years.

"If all anybody used was Maryland crabs, we wouldn't have enough," he said.

McDonald's new crab cake is described as "Maryland style" on advertisements in the 21 McDonald's restaurants that carry it on the Delmarva Peninsula. Though the crab meat is mixed with spices and filler at the Sea Watch International Inc. plant in Easton -- which also made McDonald's crab cakes last year under Wye River's direction -- the advertisements have rankled some Eastern Shore critics.

Here, too, McDonald's defends its marketing spiel. "It is a Maryland-style crab cake," Mr. Tildon said. "It has the flavor of bay seasoning. It has the same form. It has Maryland crab meat in it."

While McDonald's advertised its crab cake sandwich last year as being made from blue crabs, the company has since dropped the claim and now touts the sandwich as "new."

"We don't want to mislead anybody," said Mr. Tildon. "We've changed all our ads and promotions. We're trying to be forthcoming. It is a new product."

Don Riffle, senior vice president of Sea Watch in Easton, said the debate over the origin of the crab meat has little to do with the ultimate test -- eating one of the sandwiches.

CRAB PAN-CAKES

Rob Kasper thinks a crab cake made from imported meat may be a hard sell in Maryland. Page 1E

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