Pressed by continued reports of fake grouper, Florida's restaurant and seafood industries are scrambling to establish testing standards that ensure diners get the real thing.
"We feel very strongly that consumers and restaurants and everybody should buy what you feel you are buying,'' said Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "On the purest and simplest level, you can't have a business that is not based on honesty.''
Mosteller's group, which represents more than 10,000 hotels and restaurants, plans to meet this month with academics, government agencies and private scientists to figure out the best way to authenticate imported grouper, which arrives in 45,000-pound lots.
Concern over fake grouper has mushroomed since August, when the St. Petersburg Times reported that five of 11 "grouper" samples from local restaurants were actually cheaper substitutes:
-The Florida Attorney General's Office conducted its own tests and subpoenaed records from more than a dozen Tampa Bay area restaurants.
-A Volusia County newspaper and Lee County television station found fake restaurant grouper in those areas of the state.
-Seafood distributors are pressuring foreign exporters to provide more legitimate supplies.
-Supplies of imported grouper have tightened under increased scrutiny.
"I can tell you there has been a major crackdown,'' said Gibby Migliano, owner of Save-on-Seafood, a St. Petersburg distributor. "Everyone is getting real skittish about bringing in product right now because they can't trust the supplier at the out end.''
Grouper is west Florida's signature fish. Caught fresh from the gulf, it typically costs restaurants $8 to $9 wholesale, though this year's poor catch has driven the price as high as $12. Restaurants can monitor quality by buying the whole fish.
Imports cost about half as much and now fill most restaurant menus as grouper's popularity spreads throughout the country.
Asia, Latin America and Africa hold dozens of grouper species. But because they usually arrive as frozen fillets, authenticity is harder to verify.
About a year ago, various species of Asian catfish flooded the U.S. market. The Florida Department of Agriculture caught a Hialeah importer repackaging catfish as grouper. Federal authorities arrested a Panhandle importer for the same scam.
A month later, catfish, tilapia and hake showed up as fake grouper in DNA tests arranged by the Times.
The Florida Attorney General's Office sampled more than a dozen Tampa Bay restaurants in September and October, found more fakes and subpoenaed purchase orders and invoices.
Spokesman John Sherry declined to discuss details, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Last week, WZVN 7, an ABC affiliate in Fort Myers, reported that its Whistleblower team had sampled eight southwest Florida restaurants in September and discovered that four had served faux grouper, including a $16.99 "Sorrento grouper'' that DNA tests showed was an Asian catfish.
That followed a Daytona Beach News-Journal report that 10 restaurant samples in the Volusia County area yielded four fakes.
Though a few restaurants claimed inadvertent menu mistakes, most said they had ordered grouper, paid for grouper and received boxes of frozen fillets marked grouper.
"Some distributor comes along and says 'I have this grouper that comes from Indonesia,' and it costs less than half the domestic," said Reece Youmans, owner of St. Petersburg's Sunshine City Grill. "It tastes good. It smells great. If they are slipping some other species in there, who are we as restaurateurs to say anything?''
Industry experts say catfish and tilapia masquerading as grouper are probably deliberate substitutions by someone in the supply chain or the restaurant kitchen, since those are freshwater fish that don't remotely resemble grouper.
Marine fish are a thornier problem. Foreign fishermen might haul in five or six grouper species in one catch, along with other tasty bottom-feeders that look like grouper when skinned and filleted.
"You are fishing in grouper waters and you might be getting 50 percent grouper and 50 percent something else, but everything you get goes as grouper. It doesn't matter because the demand is there,'' said Will Gergits, manager of Therion International, a New York DNA-testing lab hired by the Times and other media outlets.
A $13 "grouper'' sandwich bought by ABC-7 at a Collier County restaurant turned out to be an emperor fish, according to Therion's DNA analysis. Emperor swim with grouper species off Indonesia and Australia.
The restaurant bought the fillet from Sysco Food Services, the nation's largest food distributor. Sysco protested the TV station's finding because the fish came in a batch that had been cleared as legitimate grouper by Applied Food Technologies of Gainesville, one of the nation's few fish-testing services.
The high price of testing may have caused the disparity, said Lee Ann Applewhite of Applied Food Technologies.
Her company charges $200 per test and typically samples only one fish from a 5,000-pound batch. "No one can afford to test every fish,'' she said.
Though the Sysco batch did test out as a legitimate grouper - based on the one-fish sample - the next fish over "could have been an emperor'' if the batch contained a mixture of fish, Applewhite said. "That's life.''
In the face of negative publicity, importers and distributors have recently pressured foreign suppliers to separate grouper from nongrouper.
"It's a lot of trouble. They don't want to do it,'' Applewhite said. "They bring in a day's catch. Fifty percent they are pretty positive is grouper. Fifty percent is sweet lips and emperor and all these fish look alike. They have to split that lot and double pack it.''
Pressure on exporters might be working.
In the past two months, Applewhite said, at least 80 percent of her samples are testing as legitimate grouper. The other 20 percent could also be grouper, just not a species that matches her data bank.
These developments have the restaurant and seafood industries looking for solutions.
Some distributors who have paid to test their imports are being identified in media reports as sources for bogus grouper - and it's not stopping with Florida.
Therion, the New York testing service, recently has been contacted by a Georgia television station that wants to test grouper samples.
"We are trying to figure out what is going on,'' said Mosteller of the restaurant and lodging association.
Are sampling techniques adequate? Are media reports accurate?
"Where,'' she said, "is this breakdown happening?''