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You order grouper; what do you get?

Published August 6, 2006

Restaurant Grouper Survey
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Tampa Bay area diners don't always get what they order.

A St. Petersburg Times survey of 11 restaurants featuring grouper showed that six served a cheaper fish instead.

One Palm Harbor restaurant charged $23 for "champagne braised black grouper" that actually was tilapia.

From wholesalers to retailers, fish substitution is so prevalent that it may be unstoppable, said Bob Jones, who represents domestic fish suppliers.

"You can probably go into any restaurant in most any state and not get what you ordered, particularly for grouper and red snapper," he said.

In May, a federal grand jury indicted a Panama City seafood wholesaler on charges of importing 1-million pounds of frozen Asian catfish for as little as $1.52 a pound, then passing it off as grouper, which can wholesale for four times as much.

That same month, the Times purchased grouper meals from 11 restaurants around the bay area.

Therion International, an animal DNA testing service in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., determined that five of the restaurant samples were fakes, including an Asian catfish called basa, tilapia, European hake and a fish that could not be positively identified except that it did not fall into a grouper genus.

A sixth sample could not be identified by DNA because the sample was too thin and too cooked, but the restaurant owner identified it as Alaskan pollack.

Restaurant owners serving faux grouper offered a variety of explanations, from mistakes by a cook or waiter, to deliberate deception by importers.

Misleading customers in this way violates Florida law, but pinpointing the culprit can be difficult. Imported grouper often passes through the hands of a foreign exporter, a U.S. wholesaler and a distributor before it sells to the restaurant.

"We buy our fish in 10-pound boxes and its says right on it 'fresh frozen grouper' right on the box," said Dan Wesner of Fish Tales in St. Petersburg, which sells an $8.95 "red grouper sandwich."

The Fish Tales sample could not be positively identified, said Therion spokesman Will Gergits, but it definitely did not fall into a grouper genus.

"The invoice says grouper," said Wesner, who paid $4.10 a pound. "I pay for grouper. I should get grouper."

Wesner's supplier, Lombardi Importers Seafood of Orlando, bought the fish from Netuno USA, a Miami importer.

"We get our fish from South America. It all comes in frozen," said Netuno president Luciano Bonaldo. "We have never had a problem before. But I pay for grouper, so I should get grouper. I am going to look into this."

Low prices should be a dead giveaway, said Will Ward, a Tampa seafood distributor who specializes in fresh fish.

Fresh, local grouper costs restaurants $8 to $9 a pound, Ward said. Fresh imported grouper might cost $1 less. If frozen imports labeled grouper sell for $4 a pound, he said, anyone who knows the seafood business should wonder why.

It would be like a car dealer buying a wholesale Mercedes for $20,000, Ward said.

"You know dealers all over the country are paying $50,000 for it, how can you with a straight face say you didn't know you were buying a product that is either defective or not a Mercedes?"

But Dr. Steve Otwell, a food scientist at the University of Florida, said dozens of grouper species are found all over the world, and some imports can sell for $2.50 a pound.

"People are under the perception that if it's not black grouper with big cheeks or red grouper from the state of Florida, it isn't grouper," Otwell said. But if a fish falls into a grouper genus, "legally it's grouper and scientifically it's grouper."

The catfish, hake and tilapia that showed up in the Times' restaurant samples not only fell outside any grouper genus, they fell outside the broader family of sea basses that all grouper belong to.

Restaurants can usually buy fresh gulf grouper year-round, except for a one-month spawning season. In 2004 and 2005, regulators also closed grouper fishing four additional months to protect troubled red grouper.

The Blue Heron, an upscale Palm Harbor restaurant, sometimes buys frozen imports because local grouper is hard to come by, said chef and owner Robert Stea.

His $23 "champagne braised black grouper" tested out as tilapia.

Stea said the frozen fish cost $6.14 a pound and was labeled "Gulf grouper" on the invoice. The box had a bar code. Whoever phonied it up, "fooled us good," he said.

Asian catfish masquerading as grouper entered the wholesale market about three years ago, after the U.S. government imposed a stiff tariff on imports to protect domestic catfish farmers. Passing catfish off as grouper avoided the tariff and allowed wholesalers and restaurants to sell "grouper" at catfish prices.

A WingHouse in New Port Richey sold basa, a form of catfish, while advertising a $7.99 grouper sandwich, the DNA test showed.

Scott Steinard, vice president of marketing, said the box was labeled grouper, which his supplier confirmed.

After customers complained about the quality of its "grouper" sandwich, WingHouse decided in June to buy swai, another species of Asian catfish, and call its sandwich "grouper teammate" on the menu.

Hooters restaurants sell a "grouper cousin" sandwich at $7.99. It is a frozen Asian import, said purchasing director Chuck Riley. Hooters labels it "grouper cousin" so diners won't think it came from the gulf. The DNA test confirmed that the Hooters fish falls into a grouper genus.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said the sampling results sound like "classic unfair and deceptive trade practice. My office will be looking into this."

The Hurricane restaurant on Pass-a-Grille, which built its reputation on the grouper sandwich, passed the DNA test.

"A petite grouper sandwich for the weight-conscious costs $8.99," said Rick Falkenstein, whose family owns the restaurant. "The original Hurricane sandwich, which has 7.5 to 9 ounces of fish, costs $11.99. People are willing to pay because the quality is that much better."

Widespread mislabeling hurts Pinellas County's commercial fishing industry and fresh fish restaurants by devaluing the real thing, said Ward, the Tampa distributor. Authentic Florida grouper has "good texture and a nice sweetness to it," he said. "It's not overpowering, not fishy."

People who eat cheap substitutes may say, " 'What's the big to-do about grouper? I don't think it was that good.' You don't want to take your $18 and pay for mystery meat."

What the testing found

The St. Petersburg Times surveyed 11 restaurants offered grouper on their menus and DNA tests revealed many were serving cheaper subsitutes. Therion International, an animal DNA testing service in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., determined that five of the restaurant samples were fakes, including an Asian catfish called basa, tilapia, European hake and a fish that could not be positively identified except that it did not fall into a grouper genus. Misleading customers in this way violates Florida law. A breakdown of the test results:

[Last modified August 25, 2006, 10:20:43]

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