Getting what you paid for? Channel 2 investigates mislabeled fish

by: Jim Strickland Updated:

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ATLANTA - The menu says the fish you’re eating at local restaurants is grouper, as does the price tag.

But Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland and a team of scientists wanted to find out if that’s really what you’re eating.

Researchers at the University of South Florida tested restaurant and raw grouper samples from across metro Atlanta, using a new technology designed to quickly detect mislabeled fish.

"Why do we need this test?" Strickland asked researcher Dr. John H. Paul.

"Because as much as 30 to 40 percent of the seafood entering the country is mislabeled. Sometimes accidentally, but sometimes fraudulently," he replied.

Paul and his partner, Dr. Bob Ulrich, invented a new genetic test that is designed to spot fish imposters in less than an hour, rather than several days needed for traditional DNA testing.

Paul says 80 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, and anti-fraud inspection is lacking.

"So many people I've heard say, 'Gosh, I had grouper Friday night but it sure didn't taste like grouper,'" he said.

More than one third of the restaurant samples failed. A second DNA test confirmed that restaurants sold our investigators Asian catfish, not grouper.

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

The printed menu just says fish, but it says grouper sandwich on their web menu. 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."

After Tony's sports bar and grill owner Tony Mahroum did not return several messages, Strickland went to the restaurant to speak with management. Now manager was available, but day cook Victor Arteagen told Strickland that he was fooled.

"Does it say 'grouper' on the box?" Strickland asked.

"It says grouper on the box," said cook Victor Arteagen, who also said the boxes were discarded and not available for Strickland to see.

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

Each of five other restaurants denied responsibility and vowed to take it up with their suppliers.

They are: Thrive-NW Atlanta, Majestic Diner-NE Atlanta, Bay Breeze-Mableton, Crawfish Seafood Shack-NE Atlanta, The Wing Factory-Chamblee.

Click here to see the responses Channel 2 received from these restaurants.

Paul says restaurants often get duped up the supply chain, which is why the new test is designed for use at the ports where frozen imports arrive. 

A shipment only needs to be held an hour while identification takes place.

For the one who pulls the switch on fish, there can be big money involved, 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 to $4 range, and sell it for $9 to $10 to $11 a pound."

Strickland also gathered samples from 15 seafood markets. He got what he paid for each time.

The scientists are expanding their test method to other species. Red snapper is next.