This weekend, Maryland officials are launching a new program that will help consumers know whether restaurants that sell “Maryland-style” crab cakes are actually selling crab from the Chesapeake Bay, or imported meat from Asia.
So far, 40 restaurants have signed up for the voluntary “True Blue” program being run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Participating businesses can display an official “true blue” crab logo with a Maryland state flag image on their menus if they agree to occasional inspections, according to Stephen Vilnit, Director of Fisheries Marketing for the state agency.
“What we are going to do is follow up behind the restaurants and we are asking for them to show us invoices every now and then to prove that they actually are using Maryland crab meat, if they are going to be part of this program,” Vilnit said.
Vilnit recently visited one of the first restaurants to sign up for certification: The VIN 909 Wine Cafe, at 909 Bay Ridge Avenue in Annapolis. There, Justin Moore, one of the owners (shown in the picture at top), prepared one of his specialties: a blue crab roll on brioche with creamy shellfish bisque.
First he seared a brioche roll, brushed with butter, on a hot metal plate. Then he scooped into the rectangular boat his magic ingredient.
“Now I’m going to add the crab to the roll,” Moore said, working intently in the tiny kitchen. “To our crab mix we add some aioli, which is sort of like a garlic mayonnaise and some chives. Then lemon juice. And then mostly crab, because crab is the main ingredient here.”
VIN 909 is unusual. Even before the “True Blue” program, it used only Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in its crab dishes, according to Moore. The names of the other restaurants and stores participating in “True Blue” are listed at the bottom of this page.
Here’s the big picture: More than 90 percent of the crab meat sold in Maryland is not from the Chesapeake Bay, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Over 40 million pounds of crabmeat is imported into Maryland each year, while only about 600,000-700,000 pounds a year are produced the Bay region, according to the state agency.
Many restaurants advertise “Maryland-style crab cakes,” but instead serve the meat of a different species: blue swimmer crabs from Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Even when people buy live blue crabs in Maryland, they are often from Florida, Texas, or Louisiana, especially in winter.
Vilnit said the lack of transparency for consumers in the existing system extends beyond crab to a variety of fish.
“Seafood fraud is definitely a problem in the industry --whether it be tuna or crab meat or whatever else the species may be, there is deception going on,” Vilnit said.
The “True Blue” program is designed to ensure more truth in labeling on menus, at least for blue crabs.
Why do many restaurants sell imported crab? It’s cheaper – sometimes half the price, because of low overseas labor costs. But imported crab is generally not as fresh, because the meat is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. And to some diners, it tastes less rich than Chesapeake crab, because crabs from hotter climates do not store fat for winter hibernation as local crabs do, Vilnit said.
“Oh, yeah,” Vilnit said, biting into the snowy heaps of meat on the toasted roll. “Definitely very good.”
The crab rolls are shown in this photo, with the dish held by restaurant co-owner Moore (right) before being devoured by Vilnit (left) and me.
Buying local crab supports local watermen and crab processing plants, Vilnit added. For example, VIN 909’s crab was purchased from the family-owned J.M. Clayton Company of Cambridge, Maryland, which was founded in 1890, making it one of the oldest crab picking houses in the world.
Not according to Dr. Thomas Miller, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Lab and an expert on blue crabs.
Dr. Miller said the Bay’s blue crab population has tripled since 2007 because of restrictions that Maryland and Virginia imposed on catching females. Dr. Miller said this rebound demonstrates the Bay can support both a seafood industry and healthy crab populations as long as crabs full of fertilized eggs continue to be protected.
"If we were to stop fishing altogether, the blue crabs would do a lot better,” Dr. Miller said. “But I think we would lose a cultural history and an economic impact that crabs can certainly provide. And so I think it would be wrong to suggest that we cannot have a sustainable blue crab fishery in the Chesapeake Bay."
So you can eat with a clear conscience -- and now with clear idea of where your meal came from.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Top two photos by author. Bottom photo from Chesapeake Bay Program)
The following is a list of businesses participating in the “True Blue” program, as of March 18, 2012, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Tommy’s Downtown Baltimore MD
Frank’s Seafood Jessup MD
Ricciuti’s Olney MD
Olney Grill Olney MD
The Prime Rib Baltimore MD
Casion’s Eat Place Washington DC
Vin 909 Annapolis MD
Zeffert & Gold Baltimore MD
Gertrude’s Baltimore MD
A Cook’s Café Annapolis MD
Miya’s Sushi New Haven CT
Woodberry Kitchen Baltimore MD
Atwater’s Baltimore MD
Atwater’s Catonsville MD
Atwater’s Towson MD
Ploughboy Kitchen Baltimore MD
Atwater’s Baltimore MD
Conrad’s Crabs Parkville MD
Today’s Catch Columbia MD
Angelina’s of Maryland Brooklandville MD
Wit & Wisdom Washington DC
Sam’s on the Waterfront Annapolis MD
Wild Orchid Annapolis MD
13.5% Wine Bar Baltimore MD
Whole Foods Annapolis MD
Whole Foods – Tenley Town Washington DC
Whole Foods – Mt. Washington Baltimore MD
Whole Foods – Georgetown Washington DC
Whole Foods –Silver Spring Silver Spring MD
Whole Foods – P Street Washington DC
Whole Foods – Harbor East Baltimore MD
Whole Foods – Friendship Heights Chevy Chase MD
Whole Foods – Foggy Bottom Washington DC
Whole Foods – Bethesda Bethesda MD
Whole Foods – Kentlands Gaithersburg MD
Whole Foods – Tysons Falls Church VA
Whole Foods – Charlottesville Charlottesville VA
Whole Foods – Springfield Springfield VA
Whole Foods – Reston Reston VA
Whole Foods – Vienna Vienna VA
Whole Foods – Short Pump Glen Allen VA
Whole Foods – Old Town Alexandria VA
Whole Foods – Fair Lakes Fairfax VA
Whole Foods – Arlington Arlington VA
Whole Foods – White Flint Rockville MD
Bon Appetite Management Company Palo Alto CA
Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn Annapolis MD
Garden & Garnish Trappe MD
Island Bar & Crab House Piney Point MD
Kettle Hill Baltimore MD
Grist Mill DC Washington DC
Dino DC Washington DC
McFaul’s Ironhorse Tavern Towson MD
Ryleigh’s Oyster - Federal Hill Baltimore MD
Graul’s Market - Ruxton Towson MD
Passionfish Reston VA
The Shark on the Harbor Ocean City MD
The Prime Rib Baltimore MD
Alewife Baltimore MD
Cleaver Co. New York NY
Landmarc: Ditch New York NY
Landmarc: Plains New York NY
Graul’s Market – May’s Chapel Lutherville MD
Hilton Garden Inn, Solomons Solomons MD
Cove Side Crabs Baltimore MD
Portside Tavern Baltimore MD
Hooked Seafood & Sushi Sterling VA
The Manor Tavern Monkton MD