Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida scientists come up with an answer to fish fraud

We’re awash in fakery. Inundated in counterfeit fish. We’re buying escolar rechristened as white tuna, Chinese perch masquerading as snapper, blue tile fish sold as Chilean sea bass, farmed Vietnamese shrimp offered as Gulf of Mexico shrimp, a creature with the not-so-appetizing name of threadfin slickhead packaged as Alaskan halibut. And farm-raised tilapia subbed for just about any “wild caught” fish on the menu.

Oceana, the ocean conservation nonprofit, conducted a two-year seafood fraud study in 21 states, including Florida, and found 33 percent of the fish had been mislabeled, with most of the fakery going down in restaurants and sushi joints.

South Florida (along with Los Angeles) emerged as fish-fraud central with 38 percent of our seafood gussied up as something pricier (which seems fitting, given our ignominious status as the capital of Medicare fraud).

State inspectors try to suss out counterfeit seafood but it’s a laborious process. Until now. A couple of marine microbiologists from the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science announced this week that they’ve invented a hand-held gadget that delivers instant analysis of a frequently misrepresented fish. It’s called the GrouperChek. USF’s John Paul and Robert Ulrich aim to sell their device — which can identify the 56 different genera known as grouper — for $1,999 a pop.

Great news for grouper groupies. Ulrich told me via email Wednesday that he and professor Paul hope they can expand the application to other fish. And maybe other foods.

They’re onto something big. Food fraud has become brazen stuff. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Food Protection found fakers were pawning off adulterated versions of dairy products, fruit juices, oils, grain products, spices and extracts. A 2011 study for the Food Safety News found three-fourths of the honey sold in the U.S. had been so filtered, watered down and left bereft of pollen that it no longer met the official definition of honey.

Ulrich admitted that there were limits for the Grouper technology. Genetics are apparently a mixed-up mess with highly processed foods. Or in foods full of preservatives, which ought to be warning enough about what we’re shoving down our gullets.

Last week, the New York attorney general’s office sent cease-and-desist letters to Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC, demanding they stop selling “adulterated” and “mislabeled” herbal supplements. The companies made our fraudulent fish mongers seem honest by comparison.

Apparently DNA tests on store-brand supplements like ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, ginseng and saw palmetto found that 79 percent of the bottles either contained none of the purported herbs or the contents were contaminated with fillers not mentioned on the label.

On second thought, maybe it doesn’t matter that consumers are getting powdered rice instead of their supplements, given the widespread scientific doubts about the efficacy of so-called herbal medicines.

And maybe a dodgy chef could argue that it hardly matters if someone paid $33 for tilapia, if the customer left the restaurant convinced he had just devoured a delightful hunk of well prepared grouper. GrouperChek could sabotage those grand culinary illusions.

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