On Fla. Menus, a Favorite Fish Experiences Identity Theft

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. -- What the undercover agents ordered, over and over, was the grouper.

What wound up on their plates could stifle anyone's appetite.

The alleged grouper at 17 of 24 area restaurants sampled by the investigators was actually another, less desirable species, according to a DNA analysis conducted for the state attorney general's office and released earlier this month. Asian catfish. Emperor. Painted sweetlips. And twice, types of fish that could not be identified.

"It's a rip-off -- like taking a cheap watch and selling it as a Rolex," said Bob Spaeth, who owns six commercial fishing boats and co-owns one of the largest grouper distributors on the Gulf Coast. "Someone should go to jail."

In this area that some consider the national capital of grouper -- more than three-quarters of the U.S. catch comes from Florida's Gulf and a grouper sandwich downed at a waterside bar is cherished as an authentically Floridian repast -- the finding has amplified a local outrage that, experts say, points to a larger national problem of fish fakery.

"This problem is rampant across America," said Mark Kinsey, a special agent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who enforces marine resource laws. "And it isn't just grouper."

Much of the reason for the questionable grouper, red snapper and other fish stems from a simple matter of supply and demand, regulators and industry officials say.

With the popularity of grouper rising nationwide and the domestic catch at times limited by federal guidelines, restaurateurs have relied on imports to fill the gap.

The quality of those imports has proved harder to control, even as the lower prices -- often a small fraction of domestic prices -- have made the imports irresistible.

In many instances, not only is the "grouper" in fact farm-raised Asian catfish from Vietnam or other species that swim with grouper, but the filets have shown signs of salmonella and traces of illegal carcinogenic fungicides, NOAA law enforcement officials said.

In December, a Panama City businessman pleaded guilty to marketing more than a million pounds of Asian catfish as grouper, a remarkable volume considering that the domestic annual catch is about 10 million pounds. Yet law enforcement officers said they think larger cases are out there.

Each year, the United States imports as much as 9 million pounds of grouper -- or fish known as grouper -- and it is served in restaurants from Seattle to Miami.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company