Landmark Mississippi restaurant admits it sold mislabeled fish

Biloxi's Mary Mahoney's pleaded guilty to selling more than 29 tons of imported junk fish as premium local species.
Perch from Lake Victoria in Africa was mislabeled as premium local seafood, according to DOJ. | Photo: Shutterstock

The company that operates Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi, Mississippi, has pleaded guilty to the felony offense of selling defrosted junk fish from abroad as locally caught premium species like grouper and snapper, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Thursday.

The landmark restaurant was accused late last month of selling more than 29 tons of the mislabeled seafood between December 2013 and November 2019. Its guilty plea will cost the corporation up to $500,000 in fines, with the exact number based on how much the restaurant benefitted from the ruse. It also faces up to five years of probation.

Separately, co-owner and manager Charles Cvitanovich also pleaded guilty to peddling low-cost fish as choice species, though just in 2018 and 2019. The 55-year-old is subject to as much as three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“Mislabeling food and defrauding customers are serious crimes, and this case will help convince restaurants and seafood suppliers that it is not worth lying to customers about what is on the menu,” Todd Gee, U.S. attorney for DOJ’s Southern District of Mississippi, said in announcing the guilty pleas.

Unscrupulous restaurateurs and seafood wholesalers have been substituting readily available and far cheaper species of fish for Louisiana favorites like redfish since demand for Gulf of Mexico varieties soared during the 1980s. The local species jumped in popularity as Mississippi Delta chefs like New Orleans’ Paul Prudhomme stoked interest nationwide in what were previously trash fish, and Gulf fishermen could not keep up. Prices skyrocketed, making the payback for mislabelings that much more enticing.

In the instance of Mary Mahoney’s, a standout of Biloxi’s dining scene since 1962, diners were told they were getting premium seafoods, when in fact they were served defrosted less-in-demand species like filefish, perch and tripletail. The fish was imported from Africa, South America and India, but apparently still cost less than local catches.

In addition to deceiving customers, the mislabeled fishes posed a greater food-safety risk, according to Justin Fielder, special agent in charge for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations in Miami.

“We will continue to investigate and bring to justice those who put profits above public health,” Fielder said in DOJ’s announcement of the guilty pleas.

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