Consumers caught in net of imposter fish

U. FLORIDA (US)—More than half of seafood-eating adults say they would pay more if a labeling program guaranteed that what they were eating—and had paid for—was actually fresh Florida grouper and not an imposter farm-raised fish of lesser quality from thousands of miles away.

A survey of 400 consumers indicates there is an awareness about a knockoff-fish problem and a labeling program might be worth a closer look, says Chuck Adams, University of Florida professor.

“Basically we found that yes, people were aware of it, and we found that it had, in fact, affected their purchasing of seafood,” he says.

Details of the study appear in the current issue of Marine Resources Economics.

The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation paid for the $40,000 study, says associate professor Sherry Larkin, because it wanted to see if their product was being undercut by inferior imports.

The March 2009 survey found that 62 percent of respondents were aware that restaurants sometimes accidentally or deliberately substituted cheaper fish for grouper.

It also found that most consumers would be willing to pay anywhere from 83 cents to $3.13 more per entrée if it were labeled as authentic Florida-caught grouper, Larkin says.

Seafood substitution is by no means just a problem with grouper— since 2006, Florida’s division of business and professional regulation has logged 1,177 reports of substitution, including imitation crab being passed off as real to “seafood nuggets” posing as scallops.

But fake grouper may be the hardest to spot.

Mild-tasting whitefish such as tilapia, basa, and tra are often sold as grouper and for most consumers , it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference.

Here’s how to know, Adams says: A legal-size grouper will typically yield a filet that’s too large for one serving. So if you get an entire filet on your plate, it’s probably not the real stuff.

There’s not as much dark meat as you might get with mahi mahi or perhaps catfish, he says. And grouper has a mild flavor—so if the flavor is strong, it’s either not grouper or isn’t fresh.

Grouper filets also tend to be thicker and flake apart in large chunks, he says.

But if most consumers can’t tell the difference, what’s the harm?

“Two things,” Larkin says. ”One is, if the product is not of high quality, it’s like, ‘oh, OK, I just paid $18 for something that’s … kind of OK.’ That doesn’t do very much for the reputation of the grouper. And two, consumers could just be blatantly overpaying.”

The researchers likened the grouper situation to unwittingly buying a bogus designer handbag or a watered-down “premium” cocktail–nobody wants to be ripped off.

Adams said he’d love to see a program in Florida similar to one in Oregon where consumers can pull a package of albacore tuna from a freezer, run it under an electronic scanner, and get a picture of the boat captain who caught it, the name of the vessel and where it was caught.

“How cool would that be, to do that with grouper?” he asks.

“Would consumers want that? Would they be willing to pay a little more for that? This study suggests that they might.”

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