Crabbers pinched by rising imports

Lumps: With Phillips Foods leading the way, cheaper meat from abroad is transforming crab cakes and imperiling the crabbing industry.

June 27, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

If any food nourishes Maryland's heart and soul, it is the meat of the Atlantic blue crab.

For generations, Marylanders have formed it into crab cakes and used it in soup. They have stuffed it in rockfish and served it in crab salad. It is so much a part of Maryland's identity that Callinectes sapidus, the "beautiful swimmer" of Chesapeake Bay fame, has been designated the official state crustacean.

But before you order a crab cake at a local restaurant, you might want to know there's an excellent chance the meat is not from American waters and is not Atlantic blue crab.

The menu might say "blue crab," but for all you know, the meat was picked in Sumatra.

Over the past five years, the seafood industry has witnessed a quiet revolution in the market for crab meat. Importers -- led by the Baltimore-based company that owns the Phillips seafood restaurants -- have clawed their way to an estimated two-thirds share of the U.S. market.

Owners of Maryland crab picking houses say imports are the most serious threat the industry has ever seen -- even more dangerous than the declining catch in the Chesapeake Bay. They say that if their business continues to erode, it could have devastating consequences for bay watermen and the communities that depend on their income.

Crab-loving consumers have largely been left in the dark as these changes have occurred. Look beneath the shell of today's crab meat industry and you're going to find some surprises:

Phillips Foods Inc., which built its reputation and fortune on its association with Maryland and Chesapeake Bay crabs, has created an Asian crab meat empire with 10,000 workers and eight seafood processing plants in three countries.

Those Phillips "Maryland-style" crab cakes in the grocery's frozen food section -- one of the seafood industry's hottest products -- are made in Baltimore, but the crab meat mostly comes from Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines.

These Asian plants process crab meat from the species Portunus pelagicus and supply it to thousands of restaurants around the country, including Phillips' own seafood houses in Ocean City and Baltimore. The meat is generally regarded as more bland than Atlantic blue crab, but seafood buyers say it's virtually shell-free and makes a fine crab cake.

While none of the Asian crab meat comes from the Atlantic blue crab, its marketers often label it "blue crab." The practice is legal.

On the Eastern Shore, imports are blowing through the crab business like a powerful nor'easter. Crab pickers, watermen and the businesses that support them are all in the path. The live crabs that sell briskly in summer are still mostly from U.S. waters, but crabbers as well as the pickers depend on processed crab meat for their livelihood.

In March, two Cabinet officers sent Gov. Parris N. Glendening a memo saying that without trade relief, Maryland in three to five years "will no longer be able to sustain a processing industry."

J. C. Tolley, owner of the Meredith & Meredith picking house in the Dorchester County hamlet of Toddville, says he fears the crab picking business could collapse as quickly as oyster packing did when disease ravaged that species in the bay.

If plants such as his are forced to close, Tolley says, the "fabric of the community" could unravel in many Eastern Shore towns. "If our blue crab industry were to leave, a lot of our communities would cease to exist," he said.

But even when consumers are informed clearly that crab meat is imported, they buy it. One local grocery chain reports that sales of Phillips crab meat from Thailand -- in a new package that clearly indicates its origins -- have been strong in all its stores.

Yes, even on the Eastern Shore.

`So many doggone crabs'

Mike Voisin loves the crab picking business and wishes he could get back into it. He doesn't see that happening anytime soon.

Voisin, chief executive of Motivatit Seafoods, shut down his crab processing plant in Houma, La., in 1997 at a cost of 150 jobs. A rising tide of inexpensive imports took the profit out of his business.

Now Voisin, who continues to deal in seafood, watches the offers of imported crab meat pour in. "I get faxes every day from China, India, Thailand," he said. "I didn't know there were so many doggone crabs in the world."

Once a negligible factor in the marketplace, crab meat imports have almost doubled in recent years -- from 14 million pounds in 1994 to 26 million in 1998. Domestic crab meat sales, $144 million in 1994, dropped to $111 million as of 1997.

The U.S. industry's market share, 56 percent as recently as 1994, is now estimated to have fallen to about one-third.

By far the heaviest import pressure is coming from pasteurized crab meat from low-wage Asian countries.

Imports from Thailand tripled last year -- from $11 million in 1997 to $35 million in 1998. Philippine imports increased sevenfold -- from $750,000 to more than $5 million. Indonesian imports grew from $12 million to $18 million.

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