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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.

"It's scary, because people don't know what they're eating," Kinsey said.

Repeated revelations of fake grouper have scandalized restaurant-goers across Florida, and made them doubtful at the dining table.

In August, the St. Petersburg Times reported that at six of 11 area restaurants sampled, the "grouper" was actually something else, according to DNA tests. One restaurant was charging $23 for "champagne braised black grouper" but was instead serving tilapia.

A television station in Fort Myers and the Daytona Beach News-Journal followed with similar findings.

"People who don't know us are asking, 'Is that really grouper?' " said Stephanie Berry, a manager at Dockside Dave's St. Pete Beach, which many locals say serves the best grouper sandwich.

The texture and taste of real grouper are much different from those of the Asian catfish, which is its most common substitute. Grouper costs more because it tastes better. Moreover, Asian catfish filets are often thin and small; those of grouper, a much larger fish, are larger and thicker.

Exactly whom to blame for the fraudulent fish is a matter of debate. Some said anyone in the business should know the difference. Others said it is possible that the restaurants are being victimized as much as consumers are.

"If you order grouper and it says grouper on the box, what else can you do?" said Brian Connell, general manager of the Fourth Street Shrimp Store, a St. Petersburg restaurant. "A lot of honest people are catching a bad rap on this. We haven't been in business for 20 years by deceiving people."

According to the state tests, the restaurant was serving green weakfish as grouper.

The samples from that eatery and the others were tested by David Price at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, part of the University of Florida.

Using essentially just a crumb of each alleged grouper, Price identified the type of mitochondrial DNA in each fish, then tried to match it up against one of about 100 grouper species in a genetic database maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

For 22 of the 24 fish samples, Price determined the species -- grouper or not -- by matching 99 percent of the sample DNA to grouper DNA. The remaining two were far enough away from any known grouper DNA that he could be sure that they were not the fish the restaurants had described.

The most common substitute was Asian catfish, he said. Emperor fish, which are known to swim with grouper, was next.

Connell said the restaurant bought the grouper from Sysco, a large national food-service company.

"They're the industry standard -- the best," he said.

Sysco West Coast Florida representatives said that they know a problem exists, and that last year they began testing about one of every several hundred to several thousand pounds of purported grouper. Each test costs $180.

They have also warned suppliers that they will not do business with those who falsely label their products.

Since testing began, the proportion of false grouper has dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent, said Lee Ann Applewhite, the chief executive of Applied Food Technologies, which conducted the tests for Sysco.

Still, fish that are not grouper can slip through.

"It's a classic case," said Spaeth, "of let the buyer beware."

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