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Seafood Processor Pleads Guilty to Selling Foreign Crab Meat Falsely Labeled as Blue Crab from U.S.

OCI BadgeDepartment of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of Virginia

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, July 18, 2019

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – A Poquson man pleaded guilty today to his participation in a lucrative conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and falsely labelling millions of dollars-worth of foreign crab meat as “Product of USA”.

“As I stated when his father was convicted, the Caseys conspired to replace Atlantic Blue Crab with crab meat from Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Central and South America,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Casey falsely labeled nearly 400,000 pounds of crab meat with a retail value in the millions of dollars. This fraud causes real financial harm to the fragile, maritime economies here in the region, and threatens to tarnish the good name of the watermen and women who have worked this estuary for generations. We are committed to working with our federal and state partners to ensure compliance with the Lacey Act, and to enforce our nation’s environmental laws that are in place to protect consumers from similar fraud schemes.”

According to court documents, Michael P. Casey, 42, was the Vice President for Marketing and Operations of Casey’s Seafood Inc., a wholesale processor of crab meat and other seafood. He pleaded guilty to conspiring with James R. Casey and others to substitute foreign crab meat for Atlantic blue crab. James Casey, the owner and President of Casey’s Seafood, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced in January to a 48-month term of imprisonment.

“By illegally mislabeling hundreds of thousands of pounds of crab meat, the defendant intentionally undermined the local crab processing industry – defrauding customers and, in turn, damaging the public’s trust in an industry that is important to the local economy," said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Mr. Casey’s actions are an affront to those who play by the rules when selling blue crab, and The Department will continue to work closely with its partners to prosecute criminals who flout the rule of law.”

As part of the plea, Michael Casey admitted to knowing that Casey’s Seafood employees were directed to unpack foreign crab meat from containers and re-package that meat into containers bearing the company name and which were labeled “Product of USA.” falsely labeling more than 183 tons of crab meat, which was then sold to grocery stores and independent retailers. Casey also admitted to aiding and abetting James Casey in selling at least 367,765 pounds of crab meat falsely labeled “Product of USA,” with a total wholesale value of approximately $4,324,916.

“Seafood fraud undermines the economic viability of U.S. and global fisheries, deceives consumers, and threatens the health of those who consume tainted or misidentified seafood products,” said James Landon, Director of NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement. “This case is a great example of investigative cooperation by state and federal law enforcement to strengthen seafood fraud detection and safeguard the industry and consumers.”

A significant decline in Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) harvests that began in 2010 made it increasingly expensive to purchase live Atlantic blue crab and increasingly difficult to profit from the labor-intensive process of picking meat from live-harvested blue crab. As part of his guilty plea, Casey admitted that, because of this decline, he and the company could not and did not process sufficient quantities of Atlantic blue crab to meet customer demands. To make up the shortfall, the co-conspirators used foreign crab meat to fulfill customer orders. During the periods when the company did not process blue crab—which sometimes lasted three months—the co-conspirators purchased crab meat (not live crabs) from Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and other foreign locales.

“U.S. consumers expect the origin of their seafood to be correctly identified. When sellers attempt to deceive the public about their product’s origins, they put the public’s health at risk by introducing seafood of unknown origin,” said Special Agent in Charge Mark S. McCormack, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations Metro Washington Office. “When sellers are deceptive about their products’ origins, they deprive the public of important information about their purchasing decisions. We will continue to investigate and bring to justice those who put profits above fair dealing.”

The crab meat from Indonesia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam included meat from Portunus pelagicus, Portunus haanii, and Ovalipes punctatus, which are all Indo-West Pacific species of crab that do not live in the continental waters of the United States. The company also purchased crab meat (not live crabs) from Central American sources, which did include Atlantic blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, but also included other species such as Callinectes bocourti, Callinectes bellicosis, Callinectes toxotes, and Callinectes arcuatus.

As part of the guilty plea, Casey further admitted that beginning at least as early as 2010, and continuing through June 17, 2015, he was aware that company employees had been directed to unpack foreign crab meat from suppliers’ containers, comingle it with domestic blue crab and/or other types of crab, and re-pack that crab meat into Casey’s Seafood containers, all of which were labeled “Product of USA”.

As part of the plea, Casey admitted that part of the conspiracy was to purchase discounted foreign crab meat, some of which was referred to as “distressed” because it was approaching or beyond its posted “best used by” dates. Casey admitted to knowing that company employees “re-conditioned” the “distressed” crab meat by re-pasteurizing it, and then packaging the “re-conditioned” meat into the company’s containers, which were labeled and sold as blue crab and “Product of USA.” Casey also was aware that employees placed labels with “Product of USA” on containers that concealed labels marked as “Product of China” and “Product of Brazil”.

Casey pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Lacey Act and faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison when sentenced on November 14. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

This case was part of an ongoing effort by the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations, the Virginia Marine Police, and the Department of Justice to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the false labeling of crab meat.

G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources Division, Logan Gregory, Special Agent in Charge for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement’s Northeast Division, Mark S. McCormack, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Metro Washington Field Office, and Michael K. Lamonea, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Norfolk, made the announcement after U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Miller accepted the plea. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric M. Hurt and Trial Attorney Gary Donner of the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division are prosecuting this case.

A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Related court documents and information are located on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or on PACER by searching for Case No. 4:19-cr-67.

Topic(s):
Wildlife
Component(s):
USAO - Virginia, Eastern
Contact:
Joshua Stueve Director of Public Affairs joshua.stueve@usdoj.gov