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One Man's Opinion: Fish business gets fishier

As more of the U.S. seafood supply is imported from
    Asia, legions of small importers have popped up, eager to make
    a quick buck.
By Peter Redmayne
June 01, 2006

It's no secret that people in Florida love their grouper. Woody's Waterfront Cafe and Beach Bar in St. Petersburg has 10 grouper dishes on the menu, including the house specialty, the "Grouper Grope," a sandwich with a grouper fillet that can be ordered fried, grilled or blackened.

Guests also can try "Buffalo Grouper," a fillet that is "deep fried and coated in tangy Buffalo sauce, then topped with bleu cheese."

Now, since good grouper is a very mild piece of whitefish, what you taste is the fixins' and not the fish. And because grouper is also a relatively expensive fish, it's a time-honored tradition in the Sunshine State to pass cheaper whitefish fillets off as grouper. If you can pull it off, it's good money.

That's what Danny Nguyen, the VP of Panhandle Seafood in Panama City, Fla., allegedly did (see Late News this issue, page 4).

According to an indictment filed in May by a federal grand jury in Florida, Nguyen imported more than 1 million pounds of basa from Vietnam and sold it as grouper. Not only did Nguyen increase the value of his fish, but he and his Viet­namese exporters, who were also named in the indictment, avoided a hefty tariff that was slapped on Vietnamese basa exports in 2003.

While fraud in the fish business is hardly breaking news, there is one intriguing new angle in this case. According to the office manager at Panhandle, who turned informer for the feds, some of Panhandle's customers knew that the grouper they were buying was not really grouper after all.

The fact that one of the nation's largest foodservice distributors was named in the affidavit as one of the buyers caused more than a few heads in the seafood industry to turn.

From time to time, members of the National Fisheries Institute, the seafood industry's only national trade association, have complained that the seafood industry gets a black eye when consumers hear about the latest fish scams in their local paper or on TV.

Since the regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration haven't shown much interest in helping the seafood industry clean up its act, NFI stepped into the breach last year and created an "Economic Integrity Task Force." How effective this will be remains to be seen.

Besides the fact that NFI's effort is voluntary and has no enforcement mechanism, many of the fishiest people in the fish business are not NFI members anyway. As more of the U.S. seafood supply is imported from Asia, legions of small importers like Danny Nguyen have popped up, eager to make a quick buck, sometimes at the expense of their customers.

But what is especially disconcerting is the possibility that more buyers further down the distribution chain are taking advantage of consumers. More retailers, for example, are complaining that their competitors know very well that they are buying adulterated seafood in order to get wholesale product at the lowest possible price.

Screwing consumers has never been a good business model for selling seafood. But it's always been - and probably always will be - a headache for the industry, since neither the industry nor government agencies have shown they can stop it.

So next time you're in Florida, you may want to steer clear of the cheap grouper.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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