Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland reports

Bait and switch: Are restaurants mislabeling fish?

Sweet, moist and flaky — it’s hard to resist a piece of fresh grouper. But is that grouper on the menu really grouper?

Channel 2 Action News reporters took advantage of new DNA testing to find out what Atlanta restaurants and markets were serving.

Bad news for fish lovers: More than a third of the 19 restaurants claiming grouper on the menu failed Channel 2’s test. A second DNA test confirmed the restaurants were selling Asian catfish, not grouper.

“As much as 30 to 40 percent of the seafood entering the country is mislabeled. Sometimes accidentally, but sometimes fraudulently,” said Dr. John H. Paul, researcher at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

Paul and partner Dr. Robert Ulrich developed a device that can authenticate seafood in minutes. DNA barcoding currently used by the Food and Drug Administration takes days to complete. Their work at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science developed a portable device that could test fish genetically in minutes, instead of days — at a quarter of the cost.

“So many people I’ve heard say, ‘Gosh, I had grouper Friday night but it sure didn’t taste like grouper,’” he said.

At the Blue Ribbon Grill in DeKalb County, partner Eddie Smyke said they knowingly make their lunch sandwich with the cheaper fish.

The printed menu just says fish, but grouper sandwich on their Web menu should have been removed. They have now changed their online menu to advertise a fish sandwich, not grouper.

“(An) oversight on our part,” he said. “We did want to make sure we were not misidentifying the fish as grouper.”

Tony’s Sports Bar and Grill owner Tony Mahroum said he did not knowingly sell mislabeled grouper and said he is considering taking the item off the menu. Day cook Victor Arteagen told Channel 2 that he was fooled.

“Does it say ‘grouper’ on the box?” Channel 2 asked.

“It says grouper on the box,” said Arteagen, who also said the boxes were discarded and not available for Channel 2 to see.

An attorney for Tony’s Sports Bar and Grill later told Channel 2 by phone they deny any catfish was sold as grouper in their restaurant.

Other restaurants where the samples were catfish included the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon, Bay Breeze of Mableton, Thrive on Marietta Street, the Crawfish Shack on Buford Highway and the Wing Factory in Chamblee.

Those restaurants spoke to Channel 2 by email or phone to say they did not intentionally serve catfish to their customers and planned on contacting their vendors to look into the problem.

Thrive chef Justin Cox said he takes the integrity of his food very seriously and he would most likely start purchasing grouper whole to guarantee his product.

Seafood fraud is so prevalent a presidential task force was developed in 2014 to combat it.

Paul said restaurants are exceptionally vulnerable to this type of fraud because about 80 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. He said current regulations on the seafood industry make it tough to track fish from boat to plate.

“You have to take the faith of the retailer that what they’re selling and what they’re serving is what it really is,” Paul said.

Nearly 40 different types of fish fall into the grouper family, and none of them are cheap. Putting a grouper label on a piece of Lake Victoria perch or corvina could a mean significant profit, according to Inland Seafood COO Bill Demmond.

“He can probably buy a similar-looking fish, particularly in the frozen end of things, for in the $3.50-$4 range, and sell it for $9 to $10 to $11 a pound,” Demmond said.

Demmond said seafood fraud does more than rip off restaurant customers; it could jeopardize his way of life.

“If I’m competing with somebody that’s selling grouper at $9.99 and I’m at $12.99, something’s wrong here,” Demmond said. “He’s taking a chance on getting caught, and I hope he does.”

There was one piece of good news: Channel 2 also tested 15 samples of fish from 13 markets and grocery stores around the metro area. The genetic testing by the University of South Florida confirmed those raw samples were, indeed, real grouper.

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