Newport News, Virginia - Michael P. Casey of Poquoson, Virginia, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Newport News, Virginia, on charges stemming from his participation in a lucrative conspiracy to falsely label millions of dollars-worth of foreign crab meat as “Product of USA."
“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 Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Justice Department's 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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Casey 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Investigations, the Virginia Marine Police, and the Department of Justice to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the false labeling of crab meat.
The guilty plea took place before U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Miller in Newport News. Sentencing will take place on Nov. 14, 2019. The maximum sentence for conspiracy to falsely label crab meat is five years in prison and a fine of up to half the gross gain of the offense.
The investigation is continuing. This prosecution is being handled by the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The government is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Eric Hurt and Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner.