`Maryland-style' foreign crab meat pinches watermen

Local crab pickers also back bill seeking meat's origin on label

February 09, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Crab pickers and watermen appealed to legislators yesterday to protect them from foreign crab meat products being sold under names such as "Maryland-style" and "Chesapeake Bay."

Representatives of the two industries urged a House of Delegates committee to approve legislation that would force seafood processors such as Baltimore's Phillips Foods Inc. to use labeling that tells consumers the country of origin of the crab meat and crab meat products they use.

The legislation, introduced by Annapolis Del. C. Richard D'Amato, a Democrat, comes in response to a precipitous decline in the market share of domestic crab meat under pressure from imports -- mostly from Asia. Over the past five years, U.S. produced crab meat has declined from more than a 50 percent market share to 27 percent in 1998.

Opponents of the bill mounted a vigorous response, calling the measure a violation of federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

D'Amato, however, held up a package of "Chesapeake Bay" brand frozen crab cakes purchased at a local grocery store.

"It's all foreign imports, all of it," he said. Delegates were also shown packages of Phillips' "Maryland Style" crab cakes and crab soup, made from crab meat produced in the company's Asian plants.

Calling such labeling "economic fraud," D'Amato asserted that consumers want to know where the crab meat in seafood products is coming from.

"I'm not asking for any company to be penalized here. I'm asking for truth in advertising," he said.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said domestic crab meat can't compete with cheaper crab meat from overseas. He said picking houses stockpiled far less crab meat this winter, depressing sales and prices of the crabs caught by Maryland watermen.

"We figure we could have sold 4 [million] to 5 million more pounds of crabs than we did last year," Simns said. He added that the use of such phrases as "Maryland-style" makes it difficult for the state's seafood industry to differentiate its products from imports.

Doug Lipton, a fisheries economist at the University of Maryland, noted that most of the crab meat imported to the United States comes from species other than the Atlantic blue crab -- one of Maryland's state symbols. He said the most common import was the Asian species Portunus pelagiacus -- "not a close cousin" of the blue crab.

Members of the House Environmental Matters Committee expressed sympathy for the watermen's and crab-pickers' plight, but seemed skeptical that D'Amato's bill was the solution to the problems of the industries.

Chairman Ron Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, brandished a letter from the attorney general's office advising the committee that the measure violated the commerce clause of the Constitution because it interfered with interstate commerce.

Guns' warning that the bill was in trouble came even before lobbyist Bruce Bereano, representing Phillips and other seafood importers, began picking apart the legislation.

Bereano stacked the witness table with food packages such as "New York Style" cheesecake made in Columbus, Ohio, and Philly Cheese Steak that didn't come from Philadelphia.

"This bill will do nothing to improve the situation of the watermen on the Chesapeake Bay," Bereano said, introducing industry witnesses including American Seafood Distributors Association counsel Stuart M. Pape.

Pape told legislators that under U.S. law, the suffix "style" was the legally prescribed way to tell consumers that a food was prepared in the manner of a certain region.

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