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Point of View: Product substitution must be stopped

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Robert Jones
January 01, 2007

Restaurants are found to be cheating nearly every time a Florida newspaper or TV station investigates whether the grouper on the menu is actually grouper or another species. Investigative reporters have purchased flesh samples from dozens of restaurants and submitted them for DNA analysis. The results prove grouper is not the fish actually served more than 50 percent of the time.

In a recent sting in Fort Myers, Katie LaGrone, a reporter for the city's ABC affiliate, did a two-month investigation, then submitted fish sold to her as grouper to a lab for DNA analysis. Only three of the eight samples were grouper; one was unidentifiable so it could have been anything; and one was red snapper.

"It's very befuddling because our boxes say grouper, our invoices say grouper, it should be grouper," one of the restaurant owners found selling mislabeled grouper told LaGrone. However, when the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation investigated the restaurants in Lee County, all of the invoices and boxes containing fish were labeled as ponga, product of China or Vietnam, swai fillets or escolar. But none of the product was domestic grouper. The tendency by restaurant owners is to blame the suppliers, but in this case the official government investigation instead implicates the restaurants.

While this case points to restaurant fraud, there are unscrupulous suppliers that will put anything a buyer wants on the carton. Suppliers have been caught taking basa out of one box and putting it into a box labeled grouper, once recently in the presence of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspectors. A Department of Justice case in Panama City last year ( SFB Oct. '06, p. 4) will result in a long prison sentence and heavy fines for those convicted of selling catfish-like species as grouper. Suppliers are being checked.

Grouper is not the only fish taking a hit from cheaper imported tra and pangasius-like species. The coordinated law enforcement efforts used in Florida to stop this cheating could be the model for other states that are not addressing this consumer fraud.

Florida Attorney General/Governor-elect Charlie Crist recently investigated seafood substitution in Miami and the Tampa Bay area and issued subpoenas pursuant to Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act ( SFB Dec. 2006, p. 4). Those subpoenaed businesses were required to submit all the evidence and records to the AG's office by Dec. 1. The penalties under this law are more severe than the usual slap on the wrist authorized in other consumer-fraud regulations.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocated consumer protection during his two terms. He told me he would bring the problem of seafood-product substitution to the Crist transition team for their action. It is hard to imagine any politician or government official not supporting the effort to stop product substitution. It helps any elected official to say the interests of the public are being protected.

It is time to change the culture of the seafood industry from the boat to the throat and stop product substitution.

 

Robert Jones is the executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association and VP, Florida Food Safety Task Force

 

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