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Grouper search shifts from restaurants to suppliers. "We have nothing to hide," says one.
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 20, 2007
This grouper sandwich from the Hurricane restaurant in Pass-a-Grille cost $14.97 but is 100% grouper and is worth every penny.
[James Borchuck | Times]
After a year of investigating, the Florida Attorney General's Office has expanded its fake grouper investigation to include the wholesalers who supplied it, including the nation's largest food distributor.
Sysco Food Services-West Florida was ordered to turn over scores of documents, including records of all fish products bought and sold in 2006, results of every fish verification test for the last four years and the names of all former employees who handled imported fish in 2006.
Sysco, based in Palmetto, supplied several restaurants with frozen "grouper" imports that turned out to be cheaper species when tested last year by news outlets and the attorney general.
"We're attempting to discover how these fish are marketed, whether or not it was clear to restaurants what they were buying and paying for," Sandi Copes, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollom, said Friday.
Sysco-West Florida president Carl Cannova said his company never knowingly sold fake grouper.
The company has already turned over the documents, requested via subpoena last month, and is cooperating fully with authorities, he said.
"We have nothing to hide," he said.
In the past, he has said that Sysco occasionally samples huge containers of grouper imports and will not buy from importers who can't provide authentic fish.
The state also issued subpoenas for the records of eight smaller distributors. Those companies also sold grouper to Tampa Bay area restaurants that failed grouper DNA tests last year. Several of the restaurants have paid civil penalties of up to $5,000 under the Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The state also subpoenaed records from Applied Food Technologies, a Gainesville laboratory that tests seafood for Sysco and other large suppliers.
But Copes said Sysco is the primary focus of the current investigations, because of its size.
"We are under the impression that the larger (suppliers) may be indicative of industry trends," she said. "At the end of the day, people are not getting what they paid for. If it's about, pardon the pun, going after the bigger fish, then that's what we are going to do."
Fresh grouper from the Gulf of Mexico is west Florida's signature seafood. In recent years, however, most grouper served in restaurants has been shown to be inexpensive frozen imports.
In August 2006, the St. Petersburg Times published DNA tests on grouper from 11 Tampa Bay restaurants. Six turned out to be other species, including a $23 "champagne-braised" grouper that was actually tilapia.
Within weeks, the Attorney General's Office opened an investigation and tested 17 restaurants, finding an even higher rate of bogus fish. Other Florida newspapers and television stations followed, sampling restaurants with similar results.
Some of the nongrouper, like the Asian catfish, represents deliberate substitution, whether by the importer, distributor or restaurant.
Other fish, like much of the Sysco-supplied "grouper," are species that swim side-by-side with Asian grouper, are hauled up in the same net and thrown into the same box.
Many restaurants that sold fake grouper had invoices saying they bought grouper. They had no way of knowing it wasn't, they insisted, which is why the state's investigation has expanded.
"This is not about targeting individual restaurants," Copes said. "It's about where these phony fish are coming from."
Dan Wesner, owner of Fish Tales in south St. Petersburg, showed up with fake grouper in tests by the Times and the attorney general.
He has refused to pay any civil "fees" or other penalties to settle the state's complaint. This week, the attorney general sued him in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, alleging deceptive trade and false advertising.
Wesner "either knew of or should have known" the fish was not grouper, the suit says. He could face fines of up to $10,000 per violation.
Wesner contends that he is the victim. His suppliers sent letters swearing that their product was grouper. He had a scientist at the University of South Florida test some batches, and switched suppliers when one fish flunked.
He will see the state in court, Wesner said Friday.
"I did nothing wrong, and I'm not going to pay for doing nothing wrong."