Breeders tear their hair after hijacking of coveted crab

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 12:00am

Expensive and sophisticated laser technology fails to deter a flood of fakes

A highly prized hairy crab unique to a lake near Suzhou has become the target of pirates, who have hijacked the crustaceans' brand and flooded the Shanghai market with fakes despite the use of laser technology to protect its name.

Fishermen say the pirated crabs have cost them millions of yuan in revenue, while consumers have lost confidence in their brand. The crabs - which cost more than 200 yuan (HK$185.80) each in fancy restaurants in Shanghai - are caught from Yangcheng Lake, near Suzhou. To protect their brand, a breeders' association decided the 'Yangcheng' name could only be used for crabs caught in seven parts of the lake.

They bought 20 laser printing machines for members to imprint the Yangcheng brand on the shell of the crab, believing the sophisticated and expensive technology would protect them from fakes.

However, they underestimated the ingenuity of the competition. For every 4,000 real Yangcheng crabs shipped to Shanghai this year, there were 40,000 fakes - all carrying the coveted brand name.

'Our plan was to brand 850 to 1,000 tonnes of crab, but the fakes were so widespread that we had 10 per cent of that amount,' said Yang Weilong, head of the Suzhou city Yangcheng Lake Crab Association. 'We lost more than 10 million yuan in revenue and no one has confidence in our brand.'

The association bought imported laser machines costing 110,000 yuan, but others bought domestic machines for just 20,800 yuan, which fishermen then used to print the name of the association on crabs that were not from the lake. They sold them as the genuine article for just 1.5 yuan each.

The widespread fraud has provided food for thought for the fishermen of Bacheng township, which is also on Yangcheng Lake. Since their crabs are also well known, they were considering a similar branding system with the 'Bacheng' name.

'When we saw what happened and how the brands were faked, we were hesitating,' said Peng Binghui, director of the fisheries bureau of Sanmen county. 'We could also become the victim of fraud. We are also nervous about the side-effects of the laser. The death rate, en route to Shanghai, of the crabs that had been branded was unusually high. So we have decided to wait until scientific tests are done.'

Mr Yang said the fishermen would try a new strategy next year: franchising. 'We will sell our crabs only through these shops, with each carrying a record of when and where it was bred. It will cost more but it will be good for consumers and for our reputation,' he said.