Three years ago, I did a little experiment to find out how often restaurants that advertise “Maryland crab cakes” on their menus really serve Maryland crab. At P.J. Clarke’s, I asked a server about the origin of its “Maryland crab cake,” and he assured me it was “all local.” But when I later asked the then-chef the same question, he told me the bulk of the seafood actually came from Indonesia and the restaurant sometimes gets “a few pounds” of Maryland crab and blends it in.

Busboys and Poets likewise advertised “Maryland crab cakes” at the time. (It no longer does.) “It says it’s from Maryland, but it’s from China,” the server told me when I inquired about its origin. The restaurant’s Director of Operations, however, later countered that it actually came from Venezuela.

Needless to say, it’s hard to know where your crab is really coming from, no matter how it’s labeled.

Oceana has only confirmed this with a new study released today that found 38 percent of Chesapeake Bay crab cakes tested in this region were mislabeled. The ocean conservation and advocacy organization was inspired by my story on “Maryland Crab Fakes” and decided to repeat the investigation on a much larger scale with the help of actual DNA testing. “You did a whole mislabeling story without submitting one test and I thought, ‘That’s brilliant,'” says Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner, the report’s author.

The organization visited 86 restaurants throughout the D.C. and Maryland in 2014 and gathered samples of 90 crab cakes advertised as using “blue crab” or “Maryland crab.” Oceana selected restaurants based on their online menus, but if the actual restaurant menu only listed “crab cake,” the investigators would ask servers to confirm whether it was blue crab or not.

They then sent the specimens to a lab that used DNA testing to determine the crab species. Nearly four out of 10 crab cakes contained crab imported from elsewhere, including Indo-Pacific waters and the Mexican Pacific coast. Much of this imported crab is fished unsustainably or even illegally. Oceana did not include crab cakes labeled as “Maryland-style” in the study, although those can be just as misleading.

The mislabeling could be even more widespread than that. The DNA tests were unable to determine if the crabs were local, only that they were blue crabs, which are the type of crabs found locally. “These fraud rates are conservative because the DNA tests didn’t say where that blue crab was from. It could have been from Venezuela or Canada or wherever else the blue crab roams,” Warner says.

Oceana does not release the names of the restaurants involved in the study because they don’t know where in the supply chain the mislabeling occurred. It might not necessarily be the restaurant’s fault; one of the distributors or even the fishermen could be responsible. “Without greater transparency in the food chain, we can’t tell where mislabeling occurs,” Warner says.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has tried to increase transparency around the marketing of crab cakes with the 2012 launch of True Blue, a voluntary program to promote restaurants and retailers that use real Maryland crab. To qualify as True Blue, restaurants must use a minimum of 75 percent Maryland crab meat in their annual purchases. (Local crab is only available 75 percent of the year.)  The restaurants can then use a True Blue logo on their menus and marketing materials. The state fisheries service randomly checks invoices at least two times a year to make sure participating restaurants have purchased Maryland crab meat recently.

Today, around 200 restaurants have signed on to True Blue. But Warner says even some participants in the program were found guilty of mislabeling. Although she’s not disclosing restaurant names to the public, she has disclosed them to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s along the lines of someone having grouper on the menu and giving you catfish,” says Maryland’s Fisheries Marketing Director Steve Vilnit. “It’s a completely different species of animal. It’s not the same thing at all.”

Vilnit says he’s auditing all of the purchases for those True Blue restaurants that mislabeled during the period of Oceana’s study. (He wouldn’t say how many there were.) “Anybody that is in our group that did not pass is going to be on a high-watch list for the next year,” Vilnit says. “Unfortunately, the True Blue program isn’t a perfect program as I am a staff of one.”

Vilnit says he’s looking into the possibility of Maryland implementing its own DNA testing system some day. In the meantime, he says focusing on getting consumers to True Blue restaurants rather than signing on more restaurants, especially given the limit of local crabs. “If I’m a chef and I’m putting a more expensive crab meat on the menu because I’m trying to do the right thing, and nobody buys it, it doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Photo of P.J. Clarke’s crab cake by Darrow Montgomery