Every day is like CSI: Seafood files

When it comes to testing animals' DNA, business is booming.

Published May 22, 2007

Therion International, a seven-employee, animal DNA testing firm with $750, 000 in sales last year, has developed a new line of business since August.

That's when Therion tested restaurant grouper for the St. Petersburg Times and found that more than half were fake. Since then, other media outlets have hired Therion, based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to test restaurant seafood, as have restaurants that want to check up on suppliers and competition.

Unlike earlier testing methods, DNA can identify a fish after it has been cooked.

Therion president Will Gergits participated in a product substitution discussion Friday at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. He also answered questions for the Times:

What is Therion's main line of business?

Monitoring lab animals, specifically transgenic mice, a genetically altered animal used in biomedical research. .

Why else do people test animal DNA?

Parentage verification in purebred dogs or horses. We do wildlife forensics, like deer poaching cases, where we link gut piles in woods to steaks and chops in a freezer in a suspect's house. We had one case where a woman pilfered a parrot from a pet shop by stuffing it in her bra. We showed through DNA that the parrot was offspring of other parrots in the shop.

How has your fish-testing business grown?

We were always doing a little work in aquaculture, maybe 5 percent of our business, or 10 percent. Since the Florida grouper story came out last year, it has greatly increased the interest for testing in seafood substitutions. I wouldn't be surprised if within the next year our business isn't predominantly in testing seafood and aquaculture.

Who is asking for tests?

We have done about 30 tests since August, maybe 20 for media. People who sell fish are checking up on their suppliers. Some are checking up on their competition. Recently we did a project with a TV station in Los Angeles (on red snapper). Now we are getting calls from the L.A. District Attorney's Office and Orange County District Attorney's Office. They want to prosecute people.

How much fish in your tests is not the real thing?

About a 50 percent rate. It is something the seafood industry needs to address, which is why we are down here today. Recently the Chicago Sun- Times went into sushi restaurants and 14 of 14 samples of red snapper were not red snapper. Mostly they were tilapia. On the other hand, we recently tested eight restaurants for a (Florida) Panhandle newspaper and out of eight grouper, only one was not real. I think product substitution has decreased in Florida because everything is under a microscope. I think the level of substitution is very high everywhere else.

What kinds of fish have you been testing for?

Grouper, red snapper, mahi mahi. We have reason to believe that things like Chilean sea bass are being substituted for Dover sole - the high-end fish. But we haven't done any testing on that yet because we don't have the (DNA) standards to compare.

What makes this issue so compelling?

When people are going out to dinner to have a good time to get away from their worries, to get away from the kids, maybe, they want to treat themselves to something nice. To come back and see on TV or in a local newspaper and see that the restaurant has substituted a less expensive fish, they are not going to be happy.

Do you eat fish?

Very seldom, and I certainly eat it a lot less now than when we started doing this work. Every time I see a red snapper or grouper, I think about ordering it and taking a chunk back and testing it. But I just order the rack of lamb and hope that it's lamb.