|By Valerie Nienberg, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 30, 2004 - PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Catching fresh fish in local restaurants sometimes can be harder than reeling it in off the dock.
And even though it looks like the advertised "catch of the day" and tastes like it, too, the fish served could be something else, representatives of the local seafood industry said Friday.
An investigation this week into a possible food-borne illness at Uncle Ernie's restaurant in St. Andrews revealed that the dish in question was Icelandic pollock, a member of the cod family that is often served as a lunch special.
However, the restaurant does not call the dish pollock. Although some servers refer to it as "grouper," owner Jim Pigneri said the daily lunch-special board never uses that word.
Instead, he said, it is always labeled "fresh catch" or "catch of the day." Servers are instructed to refer to the lunch special as "Atlantic whitefish" or "whitefish" if a guest asks, he said.
Pigneri said he had a "serious talk" with his waitstaff Friday to remind them of the policy.
"The only time we ever do our own fresh fish is on nighttime specials," he said. Most dinner seafood dishes are prepared from imported, frozen fish.
Pigneri said the companies that deliver the frozen fish label it as grouper, but at times he is unsure.
"I hope it will be grouper, it better be grouper," he said. "Everything we buy, I should know what I'm getting, but sometimes I'm not sure of it myself, to be honest."
Even distributors sometimes have to trust the labels. Steve Rash, owner of Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, said his company uses 30 to 40 boats to catch grouper locally but also sells frozen, imported fish from places as far away as Vietnam.
"It's labeled as grouper, what it actually is I couldn't tell you," Rash said.
He said frozen fish is cheaper than the fresh variety, but still has a good quality. Many restaurants that request frozen imports do it either because fresh fish aren't available or because of cost, he said.
Where fresh grouper can cost $6 to $10 a pound, its frozen counterpart costs only $4 to $8.
Pigneri said cost is the reason, especially when manpower hours are included in the price.
"There's no way I have the ability or manpower to sit back there and clean fish," he said.
A restaurant's size could play a role in its ability to offer fresh fish. Several larger restaurants that spoke with The News Herald on Friday, including the Boar's Head Restaurant and Tavern, said they bought fresh grouper from local fishing boats.
"We only deal with what the boats bring in," said David Hazlette, head chef at the Boar's Head. "They'll bring them to us and we'll keep them whole, when we're ready to serve that night we'll cut just what we need." He said some restaurants serve a cousin to grouper, called kingclip or cusk eel.
"It's a good fish, but it's not grouper," he said. "A lot of people are not selling grouper on the beach." Rob Hammer, general manager at Hammerhead Fred's in Panama City Beach, said his restaurant also buys grouper whole and fillets it at the store. However, it does use frozen fish as a back up when local catch isn't available.
"If the weather is bad and fish aren't biting, what do people do? Take it off the menu?" Rash said.
Restaurants substituting a frozen counterpart or cousin fish are not unheard of, he said.
"Grouper has a name, so if they can buy a nice whitefish for a third of the price and call it grouper -- but that's against the law." The Department of Business and Professional Regulation agreed. Geoff Luebkemann, director of the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, said restaurants are required to follow "truth in menu" guidelines.
According to the document used by restaurant inspectors, having "false/misleading statements published or advertised relating to food/beverage" is a critical violation of the USDA Food Code.
The penalty could include a $1,000 fine per occurrence, which Luebkemann said could be translated to mean per patron.
The inspector who visited Uncle Ernie's in response to claims of illness did not cite it for that violation, but the department may investigate, Luebkemann said.
"If people are paying for grouper and think they're buying grouper and the menu says it's grouper, then they need to be providing grouper," he said.
Pigneri told The News Herald Friday he doesn't believe he is misleading his customers.
"If I am, I'm going to change it," he said. "I'll change anything to make it right." "We don't advertise it as grouper and what the employees do, I can't always control that," he said.
Right now, however, he said his biggest concern is figuring out what possibly made patrons ill earlier this week. More than a dozen people reported symptoms consistent with a food-borne illness to the Bay County Health Department after dining at the restaurant.
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