Two years after the St. Petersburg Times exposed fake grouper in Tampa Bay restaurants, the nation's largest food distributor and supplier of much of that fish has agreed to pay $300,000 to end a state investigation into the matter.
Sysco Food Services-West Coast Florida will donate food worth $100,000 to soup kitchens and will pay the Florida Attorney General's Office $200,000 to defray its investigative costs, according to a civil agreement announced Wednesday.
Sysco also will tighten its testing procedures on fish imports.
"Grouper is an important part of Florida's market, and everyone gains from ensuring that our restaurants are receiving and serving the real thing,'' Attorney General Bill McCollum said in a release.
Sysco spokesman Mark Palmer said the company never knowingly marketed bogus fish. The only grouper imports the company sold were labeled that way by Sysco's suppliers.
Since the Times' story and the ensuing state investigation, Sysco has reduced its grouper suppliers from 18 to three to control quality. It also tests fish more frequently and with better methods, Palmer said.
Settling with the state "was the right thing to do to move the industry forward,'' he said. "This should now shift the focus to other participants in the market to see if they can match our testing procedures.''
The Times tested grouper from 11 restaurants in 2006 and discovered that six were other fish species. One $23 "champagne-braised grouper'' turned out to be Asian catfish.
The Attorney General's Office then took samples from 20 restaurants. Seventeen grouper meals were bogus, the state said, and Sysco supplied 14 of those.
The state told the restaurants and Sysco to make monetary settlements or face court action for civil fraud. Most of the restaurants settled for $2,500 to $5,000.
Palmer questioned whether the fish all came from Sysco. Several restaurants were also buying "grouper'' from other distributors, he said.
While Sysco supplies several fish species to restaurants, he said, the company has no control over what a restaurant labels as grouper.
Verifying the authenticity of fish imports can be difficult. Several marine species swim together and get caught in the same nets.
They arrive as frozen fillets in batches that can range up to 50,000 pounds.
It costs $100 to $200 to test one fish. Even if it turns out to be a grouper, the fillet next to it could be something else.
As many as 300 grouper species swim in the world's oceans, some of which bear little resemblance to their Gulf of Mexico kin. Not all species have been identified with proven biological samples.
In the past, Sysco sold some fish as grouper when the test came back as an unidentified species, said McCollum's spokeswoman, Sandi Copes. The importer said it was grouper, so Sysco sold it as such.
Under the new procedures, Sysco will stop that practice.
In addition, Sysco is also collecting more fish samples to broaden the database of identifiable grouper. That will make testing more accurate for the entire industry, Palmer said.
Copes said the Sysco settlement ends Florida's two-year investigation into fake grouper.
Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com.