`Made in USA'

But most meat in Md. firm's crab cakes comes from Asia

Special Report

Crab factory


The routine isn't rehearsed, but after hundreds of appearances on the QVC shopping channel over the past decade, Ron and Margie Kauffman know what they'll say when it comes to the millions of Maryland-style crab cakes they sell under the brand Chesapeake Bay Gourmet.

There is plenty of talk about the large lumps of crabmeat, about the company's ties to Maryland and the Chesapeake. On QVC's Web site, the products are labeled "Made in USA."

What the carefully worded language omits is one critical fact. Little, if any, of the crabmeat used in the company's crab cakes is from the Chesapeake Bay or even the United States.

There is nothing dishonest about the labeling. The crab cakes - ranging from bite-sized hors d'oeuvres to dinner portions - are, in fact, assembled in a Baltimore County warehouse. But the bright white lumps of crabmeat that spill through each crab cake come mostly from Asia, with a little from Mexico and some "small percentage" from Maryland, though company founder Ron Kauffman Sr. won't say how much.

Kauffman's business, which has operated for more than 25 years, didn't always rely on foreign crabmeat. For years, the small company he and his wife ran with other relatives bought each pound of crabmeat from suppliers on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

That ensured that the company stayed small. Then, at almost the same time, QVC discovered the Kauffmans and the Kauffmans discovered Asia. There couldn't have been one relationship without the other.

Global forces that brought to the United States a cousin of the Maryland blue crab - caught in the waters off Southeast Asia - have allowed the Kauffmans to sell 8 million to 10 million crab cakes annually, about 5 million of them on QVC last year. In Maryland, just under 2.5 million pounds of local crabmeat were produced last year.

"It was very gut-wrenching that we even had to go away from Maryland meat," Ron Kauffman said. "We're very proud people that love selling Maryland-style crab cakes."

But, he added, "The customers are more concerned about the quality of the product than the origin of it."

Others in the industry have long struggled with the notion that the crabmeat they sell is not fresh domestic blue crab but something called blue swimming crab caught in Southeast Asia and pasteurized to make the long journey to American consumers.

When Miami-based John Keeler & Co. began selling Asian crab a decade ago, "it was comical," said spokesman Steve Harmell. "We had to literally give our product away. We had to beg people to try it. `Are you kidding me? Blue crabmeat from Thailand?'" Now its Blue Star brand is a top seller.

The strategy has been to play down where the crab comes from. Still, the information is often there - if you know where to look for it. Small print on most cans and tubs of crabmeat names its country of origin. Somewhere on most boxes of crab cakes in supermarket freezers the source of crab is divulged. For example, boxes of crab cakes sold in some Wal-Marts made by Handy International - based in Crisfield on Maryland's Eastern Shore - read "Product of Thailand."

In 2002, Bethesda-based Made in the USA Foundation sued Phillips Foods in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, claiming that it was misleading customers into believing its products were made with Maryland seafood by saying they were made in the United States - even though nearly all of the Baltimore company's crab comes from Asia. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Phillips packages today are clearly marked.

Back at M&I Seafood, which makes the Chesapeake Bay Gourmet brand crab cakes sold on QVC, women in hairnets, green rubber gloves and white aprons slice open 1-pound bags of frozen crabmeat. Co-workers take a slurry of ingredients - mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cracker crumbs, eggs and bay spices - and slowly mix them together with the crab. With ice cream scoops, they place the concoction onto cookie sheets for a trip to the freezer. In 20 minutes, the crab cakes will be as hard as hockey pucks and ready to be boxed and shipped in dry ice across the country.

"Could you tell if you were blindfolded which was fresh [from Maryland] and which was from Asia? I'm not so sure," Ron Kauffman said.

"Good old boys from the Eastern Shore say there's nothing better" than local crabmeat, he said. "The numbers of how crab cakes are selling around the country - that tells you something."

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