|By Tilde Herrera, The Miami Herald|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 16, 2005 - When dining out, Bill Houghton only orders seafood if it comes from his Madeira Beach fish company.
That's because he is sure of its source -- and that it's the species he's paying for.
"Most other restaurants, I'm very leery of any kind of seafood," Houghton said.
Houghton and others say consumers don't always get what they pay for when purchasing seafood in restaurants and grocery stores.
Such consumer complaints prompted state agencies to join forces and launch a campaign in February to crack down, in part, on mislabeled seafood products -- for example, the substitution of lesser known perch for grouper.
"It seems to be occurring more and more," said Lt. Col. Don Holway, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's deputy director of law enforcement. "There's more complaints coming in about the substitution and illegal sale of fish."
Last July, graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, discovered 77 percent of red snapper samples from stores in eight states were actually other species.
The testing, however, only included 22 samples and had a margin of error of 17 percent, so between 60 and 94 percent of the samples were mislabeled.
Houghton and Bob Jones, executive director of Southeast Fisheries Association, said such abuses are rampant.
"It's just a dirty little secret in Florida," Jones said. "It needs to be looked into."
Florida Fish and Wildlife, Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation partnered to launch "Operation No More Back Door" to curb mislabeling and unlawful seafood purchases from unlicensed recreational fishermen.
Since the project began, there have been several documented cases of buying and selling fish illegally that will result in charges being filed, Holway said.
Florida's "truth-in-menu" law prohibits misrepresentation or undisclosed substitution of food, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
"Basically, the food items cannot be misrepresented or characterized other than something it truly is," said Geoff Luebkemann, the department's Division of Hotels and Restaurants director.
Violators are guilty of a second degree misdemeanor and can be punished by up to two months imprisonment and/or a $500 fine.
The beneficiaries of the campaign, Holway said, are consumers and commercial fishermen being undercut by cheaper substituted fish.
Many said the majority of restaurant operators honestly serve what their menus state, but others cut corners.
Seafood mislabeling is hard to prove and enforce, said owners of Florida seafood restaurants.
"I think it's easy to get away with because I haven't seen anyone getting caught," said David Shiplett, owner of Ezra, a Cafe, in Bradenton.
Juan Rochaix, general manager of The River Oyster Bar in Miami, said he has been in other Miami area restaurants where he knows he has been served seafood other than what he ordered.
"For some people, it's like the kid who steals the cookie -- you don't want to get caught and you may do it once out of innocence or stupidity," he said, "but then you get away with it and realize that the public doesn't know the difference between a grouper and a snapper."
GROUPER AND SNAPPER
Florida grouper and genuine red snapper are the fish most commonly misrepresented.
"Anybody calls anything a snapper whether they are snapper or not," Houghton said. "Rockfish are sold for snapper, and many fish are subbed for grouper."
Said Jones, "Any time you went to a restaurant and you paid $5.99 for a Florida grouper sandwich, you're not getting Florida grouper."
That's because a decent portion of this relatively expensive fish shouldn't land on a menu for less than $8.50, Jones said. Very small portions of red grouper start around $7.
At Garcia's Seafood Grill, where a grouper sandwich costs $7.50, restaurant owner and manager David Garcia said the Miami landmark backs its menu with the family name.
"We've been in the fishing industry for 38 years. We have our own fleet of boats and serve fresh lobster, fresh snapper and dolphin that we catch," Garcia said.
But he acknowledges there is mislabeling in the industry -- at the corporate level, at some grocery stores and among some big fish sellers.
Shiplett said it happens because the public craves grouper. "Everyone wants grouper, but there are a lot of other fish that are good but aren't as glamorous," he said. "That's why you see it being done; it's in demand."
Jones said true red snapper is the poster child for unlawful substitution.
"You can find it on every menu," Jones said. "In reality, there's only 4 million pounds in the Gulf that can be caught. If you get a 50 percent yield, there's only 2 million pounds available to the entire United States."
In Florida during the past year, the food lab at the Department of Agriculture tested six red snapper samples from grocery stores around the state and determined two were of another species.
John Fruin, bureau chief of the department's food and meat inspections, said grocers are taking the hint.
Issuing a warning and following up with testing has worked in the past, Fruin said. "A few years ago, adding pork and poultry into ground beef meat almost stopped after we started testing," Fruin said.
Since April 6, grocery stores with sales of more than $230,000 have been required to label seafood with certain information, such as country of origin, species and whether the fish is wild or farm raised.
Epicure Market, the gourmet grocer at 1656 Alton Rd. in Miami Beach, recently complied with the new regulations requiring country of origin labels. General Manager Mark Burstein said the market buys fish whole so it can assure customers are getting what they pay for.
"There are 20 different kinds of snapper out there, and if it's already filleted, they can bring it in and sell you whatever they want," Burstein said.
Retail fish markets, however, don't have to comply with the new labeling regulations, but they should have pamphlets with photos or descriptions of the fish's appearance.
Regulating the state's food supply is a huge task.
Florida Fish and Wildlife patrols seafood purchases, the Department of Agriculture regulates retail stores and processing facilities, and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspects public food service establishments.
There are more than 42,000 licensed public food service establishments in Florida, according to the department. Supermarkets, retail stores, and food processing and storage plants top 40,000.
The Department of Agriculture tests about 9,000 samples per year in its food laboratory, with meat and seafood comprising only a small fraction, Fruin said. Florida Fish and Wildlife has performed fewer than 10 tests to determine species since last July. Since DNA and other testing is expensive, the agency needs significant information about a potential fraud to proceed.
And fraud, Luebkemann said, can occur at all points of the supply chain. Imported seafood could enter the country identified incorrectly. Retailers may mix up names when the seafood hits the display case. Some restaurateurs could substitute fish advertised on menus or "blackboard" specials without notice.
Holway said in one recent case, a retailer purchased sailfish -- a protected game fish -- through the back door from an undercover Florida Fish and Wildlife agent who had taken DNA samples.
Another agent went inside the store and paid a premium price for fish advertised as sushi grade ahi tuna. DNA testing revealed the "tuna" was actually the sailfish originally purchased from the first undercover agent.
"They were not only mislabeling the fish, they were selling a protected game fish," Holway said.
KNOW YOUR VENDOR
The best way for consumers to avoid impostors is by being aware and finding grocers and restaurants they can trust.
The River Oyster Bar's Rochaix said his restaurant is on guard against peddlers of phony fish, including big name fish dealers.
"Our biggest safeguard is our owner and executive chef, David Bracha. He's an avid sports fisherman," he said. "If someone tries to offer him a fish that's out of season, for example, he calls their bluff."
--Herald Reporter Monica Hatcher contributed to this report.
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