RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When you order seafood, it's hard to know if you're getting what the menu says you're getting. Recently, the St. Petersburg Times conducted an investigation. It purchased fish at several restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and then did DNA tests. It found nearly half the fish tested was not what it was billed as being.
Bob Jones is with Southeastern Fisheries Association. That's an organization that represents domestic fish suppliers. He says the problem is not just confined to Florida.
Mr. BOB JONES (Southeaster Fisheries Association): From Minnesota to California to New York, almost every instance where an investigative reporter analyzed the fish that was purchased in their particular locale, almost 50 percent was fake fish - a pond, catfish-like species mostly from Vietnam and China.
MONTAGNE: So that grilled grouper with mango salsa selling for $21.95 on the menu, it might really be catfish?
Mr. JONES: Absolutely. And it's good fish. Our only problem is when they sell it for something that it isn't. If I'm trying to sell a restaurant grouper - real grouper - I'm going to have to get 10 or $11 a pound. If someone else can sell them a substitute fish for $6 a pound, what do you think the restaurant's going to buy? So it all goes back to is the consumer getting what he or she is paying for?
MONTAGNE: It sounds like from what you're saying that there isn't really a lot of oversight. Is there anything being done about it either there in Florida where you are or other states?
Mr. JONES: Florida's probably the most aggressive, because they have developed a library of fingerprints of what fish are supposed to look like. You know, they can take a sample from raw fish or a cooked fish and identify it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: I'm sorry but, you know, of course fish don't have fingers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: Haven't you ever heard of fish fingers? You do a DNA analysis on them, and you get an actual look at what the protein looks like for that particular species. And that picture from that DNA on the identification is different for all species.
MONTAGNE: Who's doing this? Is it the restaurant owners who are substituting the cheaper fish? Is it the dealers that are selling them fish under the wrong name?
Mr. JONES: It could be dealers in a foreign country that will pack you catfish-like fish. There are restaurants that buy what they think is grouper, so it's the whole chain of events. It can happen anyplace.
MONTAGNE: So has anyone been caught substituting cheap fish?
Mr. JONES: Oh, yes, caught and fined. Some of them in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of them, there may even be prison sentences involved. And it makes the news and it gets some headlines, and then it disappears. And then nothing happens.
But we're not trying to stop imports. We're not trying to prevent any nation in the world using the U.S. market for fish. We need their fish. But we're adamant in that whatever you put on that menu or whatever you put on that box, that it should be what you say it is. And if it's not, it's nothing but stealing.
MONTAGNE: Bob Jones is executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, speaking to us from Tallahassee. Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. JONES: My pleasure.