State finds more grouper impostors
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published January 30, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Seventeen of 24 Tampa Bay area restaurants tested last year by the Florida Attorney General's Office advertised grouper on menus but served some other fish.
Sandi Copes, press secretary for Attorney General Bill McCollum, did not name the restaurants but said Monday that a civil investigation into grouper substitution is ongoing.
The investigation, which followed a St. Petersburg Times story about fake grouper, first came to light in November, after the state subpoenaed invoices and other documents from more than a dozen restaurants.
Monday was the first time the Attorney General's Office revealed the extent of its DNA sampling.
Unrelated to the attorney general's investigation, it turns out that the grouper troubles have reached the very cafeteria where state regulators, legislators and lobbyists hobnob over fried chicken and corn bread.
Eatz Capital Cafe was cited Friday, accused of selling a $6.59 grouper sandwich that turned out to be an Asian catfish called ponga.
A popular gathering spot in the busy Capitol, Eatz is one floor below the governor's office. It specializes in deli-style sandwiches, Southern fare and runs a fish special on Fridays.
Two weeks ago, the Florida Department of Agriculture received a tip that Eatz was serving ponga, which wholesales for $2 to $3 a pound.
Frozen grouper imported from Asia and South America can wholesale for $3.50 to $5 a pound. Fresh Florida grouper, caught in the Gulf of Mexico, wholesales for $10 a pound or more.
Eatz owner Valerie James declined to comment, but agriculture spokesman Terry McElroy described Monday how his department responded to the tip.
On Jan. 19, two department employees ordered fish sandwiches, one fried, one broiled. Nothing on the menu identified the fish, McElroy said. But when asked, servers behind the counter said it was grouper.
The Agriculture Department has a DNA testing lab because it oversees seafood distributors, grocery stores and other outlets that sell uncooked fish. Lab tests identified the Eatz fish as ponga.
Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson dines at Eatz two or three times a week and said it's a fine restaurant. But fish substitutes "are really not fair to the customer, who thinks they are buying freshly caught grouper."
The case was referred to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses restaurants, and inspector Richard Bull inquired about the fish special Friday. Again, the servers told him it was grouper. When he questioned the owner, James said it was ponga.
Bull recommended the Department of Business and Professional Regulation file an administrative complaint, which is the standard first step in such cases, spokeswoman Kristen Ploska said. Supervisors and the legal department will make the final decision, and Eatz could be fined up to $1,000.
Diners, restaurant owners and seafood suppliers have taken a hard look at grouper since the summer, when six out of 11 restaurants sampled in a St. Petersburg Times DNA test turned out to be serving cheaper substitutes.
Most of the restaurants said they had no idea that their grouper was not authentic. They paid suppliers for grouper, they said, and the fish came in boxes marked grouper.
Some have since removed grouper from their menus.
"I can't do any more ordering of grouper because I don't know what I'm getting," said Larry Jackson, owner of the Casual Clam in St. Petersburg. "And I don't want to get into trouble."
Casual Clam now serves haddock on dishes where it used to serve "grouper," Jackson said, and "it's selling like crazy."
Dan Wesner, owner of two Fish Tales restaurants in St. Petersburg, said he still buys an imported red grouper, but has changed his menu to read "White fish formerly known as grouper."
His supplier now requires importers to send DNA certificates with the fish, Wesner said.
Wesner said that in December, the Attorney General's Office said Fish Tales should pay a $500 fine, plus a $4,500 donation to the state, because donations are tax deductible.
"I said, 'I'm not paying anything. I've done nothing wrong,' " Wesner said. "I haven't heard back."
The boxes he bought always said grouper, he said. Instead of threatening him, he said, the state should set up a mechanism to test imports.
"Who protects me? Where is my protection?"
Copes, the attorney general's press secretary, declined to discuss the Fish Tales case.
She did confirm that the office has told WingHouse, a popular Tampa Bay area chain, that "it needs to be more precise in describing to customers what it is offering."
WingHouse serves a "grouper teammate" sandwich that is swai, another Asian catfish.
Director of purchasing Christopher M. Jones said he has been on the job only a few weeks and was not party to conversations with the state but said WingHouse would follow the law.
Customers know that "grouper teammate" is not really a grouper, he said. "It's all a fun joke."
Right after "grouper teammate," the menu says that the restaurant's owner was fishing for grouper in the gulf "and found a better fish."
Hooters restaurants lists "grouper cousin" on its menu. Hooters officials could not be reached Monday, but they have previously said they buy an Asian grouper species from a regular supplier. Their menu lists "grouper cousin" so diners won't think it is Florida grouper.
The attorney general is not suggesting that Hooters be more precise, Copes said.
McElroy, the agriculture spokesman, recalled a state campaign years ago that touted fresh Florida orange juice. State officials turned red-faced when a reporter checked on the Capitol cafeteria's orange juice.
It came from Brazil.
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8442.