Something fishy about restuarant fish

November 19, 2007

I heard an alarming news flash on the radio today about fish that’s ordered in restaurants. It reported that three fourths of the fish people eat in a restaurant really isn’t the fish they ordered at all.  A quick search turned up several stories, from several states, all claiming the same problem. Following are a few excerpts. AR

From Liz Crenshaw/nbc4.com/November 1, 2007:
• In Los Angeles, six of seven red snapper samples were tilapia.
• In Mobile, Ala., nine of 10 grouper samples were substitutes.
• The Florida attorney general tested 24 grouper samples and 17 were substitutes.
• When a University of North Carolina study tested red snapper in eight states, 75 percent turned out to be substitutes.

From Stephen Nohlgren and Terry Tomalin /Tampabay.com/August 6, 2006:
• St. Petersburg Times survey of 11 restaurants featuring grouper showed that six served a cheaper fish instead.
• One Palm Harbor restaurant charged $23 for “champagne braised black grouper” that actually was tilapia.
• In May, a federal grand jury indicted a Panama City seafood wholesaler on charges of importing 1-million pounds of frozen Asian catfish for as little as $1.52 a pound, then passing it off as grouper, which can wholesale for four times as much.
• That same month, the Times purchased grouper meals from 11 restaurants around the bay area. Therion International, an animal DNA testing service in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., determined that five of the restaurant samples were fakes, including an Asian catfish called basa. A sixth sample could not be identified by DNA because the sample was too thin and too cooked, but the restaurant owner identified it as Alaskan pollack.

From wholesalers to retailers, fish substitution is so prevalent that it may be unstoppable, said Bob Jones, who represents domestic fish suppliers. “You can probably go into any restaurant in most any state and not get what you ordered, particularly for grouper and red snapper,” he said.

Restaurant owners serving faux grouper offered a variety of explanations, from mistakes by a cook or waiter, to deliberate deception by importers.

From Stuart Watson/WCNC.com/May22,2007:
At the highest priced restaurant, McCormick & Schmick’s at Southpark, the menu said we were getting fresh North Carolina black grouper from the Albemarle Sound for $22.95.  Our test showed the fish was actually in the croaker/drum family. Managers said they’ll look into it.

The lab couldn’t even match the DNA of the fish that was served as grouper at RJ Gators. They don’t know what it is. One thing they do know:  “We were able to tell with complete certainty it was not a grouper,” said Dr. Shivji.The manager at RJ Gators showed us the box the grouper filets are delivered in.  It’s clearly labeled grouper, product of China.“It’s what we serve, (it) is grouper,” said RJ Gator’s manager.

And at Boardwalk Billy’s, our lab found the grouper was again catfish. The kitchen manager also showed us the box which he insisted was grouper. “This is our grouper filets, here which is Asian grouper, definitely not catfish,” said the Broadwalk Billy manager. But the so-called grouper is labeled “Pangasius Hypothalamus, product of Vietnam.”The Broadwalk Billy manager added, “I definitely believe in truth in advertising and anything on the menu is 100 percent what we say it is.”But Pangasius Hypothalmus is just a fancy way of saying Asian catfish. It’s not grouper.

In two cases the fish we got when we ordered grouper were really catfish. And not just any old pond raised catfish. Asian catfish – raised half a world away in Vietnam. Then we learned that the same kind of fish has been banned in some southeastern states because it contained antibiotics banned in food by the FDA.

Keep in mind WCNC’S DNA tests found not one but two of the five grouper samples were really catfish. The kitchen manager at Boardwalk Billy’s in the University Shoppes in Charlotte produced the box he said the fish came from – labeled Pangasius Hypothalmus – Asian catfish – product of Vietnam.

Jeff McCord who represents the Catfish Institute, an industry trade group of American catfish farmers, told us such substitution is  “…out and out fraud and because some of the products are potentially harmful it’s an extremely dangerous fraud.”

“Potentially harmful” because – as an Australian documentary distributed by the Catfish Institute shows – Vietnamese catfish are often raised in the polluted waters of the Mekong River.  The documentary depicts stagnant, putrid water where even the fish are dying.  And some Vietnamese farmers have kept the catfish alive by killing fungus with an industrial dye known to cause cancer.

Two years ago Alabama’s Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks tested Vietnamese catfish and found traces of the cancer-causing dye plus antibiotics banned by the FDA, and barred the tainted fish from the state. Just last month the Vietnamese fish again tested positive for a type of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones which also have been banned by the FDA in the food supply.

“It’s very simple,” said Commissioner Sparks. “As long as they continue to use those wide-spectrum antibiotics and we catch it, we’re going to ban it, we’re going to turn it around and we’re going to ship it back to them.” Authorities in the catfish producing states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia have also tested or banned the Asian catfish.

But at Boardwalk Billy’s the kitchen manager said it’s common industry practice to serve the catfish as grouper. He said he knew a couple of restaurants that serve the exact same thing including Vinnie’s – a bar and restaurant. And our test found the “original grouper sandwich” at Vinnie’s on South Boulevard in Charlotte is actually catfish as well.

The kitchen manager at Boardwalk Billy’s told us he had bought the same product from SYSCO and, in his words, “They all label it grouper.” SYSCO is one of the nation’s largest food suppliers. The manager at Vinnie’s on South Boulevard said SYSCO supplies his so-called grouper. But a local SYSCO manager denies this, saying SYSCO supplies some food to Vinnie’s but not fish.

This isn’t the first time SYSCO has been mentioned in connection with a fish switch.

A fishing industry insider in the Florida panhandle tipped federal agents three years ago that SYSCO and other food dealers were buying catfish labeled as grouper. Last year a Panama City importer, Danny Nguyen, pleaded guilty to the federal fish scam and is currently serving a sentence in prison. 

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