Grouper is one of Florida’s most valuable commercial fisheries. In 2011 over 6.9 million pounds were landed in the state with an estimated dockside value of over $19 million. However,because of its economic value, popularity among consumers, and limited supply, grouper has been the target of species substitution and mislabeling by some wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers in recent years. Often the substituted product is a lesser-valued fish imported from other countries. Species substitution and mislabeling is illegal! While the perpetrators who sell the product might generate economic gains in the short-run, the fraudulent act can have long-term negative consequences for the industry as well as consumers.
What’s in a name?
The US Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating seafood labeling. Over 50 species of fish in the seabass family worldwide are legally allowed to be called “grouper” in the U.S. However, the term “Florida grouper” can only legally be used to refer to grouper species harvested from Florida waters. These fish may carry the “Fresh from Florida” logo/label. As seafood consumer, it is important to know your seafood to ensure you are getting the grouper you paid for.
Deal with merchants that you trust.
Get to know your fish retailers and talk with them about what kind of grouper they have and where it is harvested. Any respectable business should be able to answer these questions. If still in doubt, ask to see the fish before purchasing it. Know the appearance and texture of grouper. While individual species have unique identifiable characteristics, grouper is commonly described as a lean, white-flesh fish with a taste and texture, which is popular and distinct from most common white-flesh fish. Grouper fillets are usually thick with a firm texture. When you order grouper fried, it makes it harder to distinguish it from other species so take this into consideration. Also consider the size of the grouper you get. Because of U.S. regulations, domestic grouper has to be a minimum size to harvest. If you order grouper and the whole fillet fits on your plate, that is probably a strong indicator that its either not grouper or perhaps a grouper imported from another country, where size limits are less restrictive.
Is the price right?
Buyers should be wary of grouper prices that are suspiciously low. Because the supply of domestic grouper is limited, the price is generally around $11 to $13 per pound wholesale fillet value, and the retail value — the price paid by consumers — will be even higher. Prices that are considerably lower likely mean that the fish is not grouper, but instead is a substitute species of lesser value, such as basa or Asian swai. When dining out, the price you pay for grouper will depend on the type of restaurant, and whether you get a sandwich or an entrée. Entrée prices can vary from $14-$27 and sandwiches can range from $8-10 at a low-end restaurant to $13-16 at a high-end restaurant.
Report fraudulent acts.
If you suspect the grouper you are purchasing isn’t really grouper, report it! Remember, species substitution and mislabeling is against the law! To learn more about species substitution and how to report possible violations visit this FDA website. Until recently, in order to determine whether a fish sample was really the type of fish being marketed, a sample had to be sent away for genetic testing. This takes several weeks and costs roughly $200 per sample. Researchers from the University of South Florida, with funding from the Florida Sea Grant, have now developed a hand-held machine that can test the DNA of fish tissue samples in a matter of minutes (although the processing of the sample takes about an hour). This allows the user to tell if a fish sample (frozen, uncooked or cooked) is grouper or not. Called the QPyre Handheld Sensor, the machine costs $2,500, so this is not something for personal use. However, it could be used by regulators, wholesalers and/or restaurants to verify the type of fish being marketed as grouper.
Some information in this article was taken from the fact sheet, “Tips for avoiding fake grouper,” by Florida Sea Grant extension agents Bryan Fluech and Lisa Krimsky.