By Michael Vasquez, Miami Herald

Genetics professor Mahmood Shivji didn’t get into DNA research to strike fear in the hearts of restaurant owners and chefs. But the Guy Harvey Research Institute, which he heads, is a virtual CSI: Seafood lab these days. The widespread — and illegal — practice of fish substitution at restaurants has placed Shivji’s marine life genetics expertise in high demand.

In the last two years, Shivji has analyzed upward of 100 restaurant plates from across the country, more than half the time proclaiming that the dish was not the grouper or snapper specimen that diners thought they were eating. Instead, restaurants secretly served up cheaper fish such as catfish or tilapia.

“It’s consumer fraud,” said Shivji, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University. “You’re paying for item X and usually grouper and red snapper are on the higher end of the price list.”

With domestic grouper costing restaurants $11 or $12 a pound — and imported catfish available for a mere $2.50 a pound — unsavory chefs can profit handsomely from this unethical bait-and-switch.

Shivji has picked apart breaded fillets, fillets doused in sauce, even charred fillets left on the grill a little too long.

“We can tell with 100 percent certainty” whether restaurants are scamming, Shivji said. The professor’s initial interest in identifying fish through DNA came from his passion for conservation. The federal government was having a hard time enforcing protections for endangered shark species, for example, because rogue fishermen would chop up their illegal shark catches in ways that hid any identifying features.

But chopping up a fish can’t hide the DNA, Shivji reasoned. Shivji went on to pioneer a new way of testing shark DNA that has been instrumental in cracking down on the shark fin trade.

SCOPE OF PROBLEM

Enter CBS4′s Al Sunshine. Sunshine approached Shivji in 2007 with the idea to use the power of DNA to expose fish-swapping restaurants. Sunshine had to do a bit of arm-twisting to convince Shivji to run the first test, but Shivji’s skepticism melted as the evidence of rampant seafood fraud poured in.

“It just validates the argument that this is a national, if not international, problem,” Sunshine said.

Shivji’s phone was soon deluged with calls from TV reporters in other towns. Shivji dutifully accepted and tested their frozen fish samples — mailed in from places that included Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, N.C.

Shivji has also fielded inquiries from an unidentified local fish wholesaler (who wanted to make sure his inventory was legit) and the Missouri attorney general’s office (which was investigating restaurants in Kansas City).

Fish mislabeling persists in part because it is virtually impossible for federal and state regulators to police all of the nearly five billion pounds of seafood consumed by Americans each year — more than 80 percent of which is imported.

Many restaurant patrons are also unfamiliar with the differences between species — they might order grouper simply because it’s a name they’ve heard before. “Most consumers can’t really tell the difference between a grouper and a catfish,” said Carlos Sanguily, vice president of Doral-based fish importer JC Seafood.

Aside from not getting what you pay for, fish mislabeling is a serious obstacle to ocean conservation efforts, Shivji said.

Read the full story here

And related stories here and here, a great story in the NYT about how sushi and seafood restaurants sell farm-raised salmon as wild (and got busted for doing so) and about the study that started it all, performed by by my former colleague Peter Mark and a team of UNC students!  here

 

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