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Published in the Asubury Park Press, February 5, 2005

SOMETHING FISHY? Genetic tests have shown that some stores are replacing expensive seafood with cheaper versions

By Kirk Moore, Staff Writer

BECAUSE that last meal of New Jersey flounder was so good, you're on the lookout for those white fillets again.

But when the next batch goes into the oven, the glistening slabs collapse into a watery, corrugated mess. What happened?

Chances are that generic flounder came from someplace else - perhaps frozen on the far side of another ocean, then pushed into the East Coast marketplace when supplies of fresh, locally caught flatfish ran up against catch limits.

With the U.S. seafood market increasingly dominated by imports, consumers will get more full disclosure in April when a federal country-of-origin labeling law takes effect for fish sold in supermarkets. Still, consumers will find the best way to ensure they get the fish they pay for is to know their suppliers and ask where the fish was caught, industry experts say.

"As a consumer, you've got to know where you product has come from, how long has it been off the boat?" said Aaron Robinson, seafood manager at the Wegman's supermarket in Ocean Township (Monmouth County).

In the Wegman's fish case, fillets, steaks and shellfish carry that information alongside the prices. It's part of an integrated quality assurance program that starts with visits to commercial fishing docks, said Carl Salamone, Wegman's vice president for seafood.

"Before we opened up our Princeton store, we went to Viking Village (docks in Barnegat Light) and we were on a boat that was packing out swordfish, talking to the captain," Salamone said. "We use a very extensive product specification list. Suppliers have the same specifications that our stores, our buyers and our workers do."

The problem of seafood substitution - switching a lower-cost species into the place of a higher-priced fish - got national attention again when a 2004 University of North Carolina study suggested there was widespread substitution of American red snapper, one of the most overfished and economically prized marine species at $12 a pound.

"Tight (fishing) restrictions may create an incentive for seafood substitution, whereby less valuable species are mislabeled and sold under the names of more expensive ones," wrote marine sciences professor Peter Marko and other University of North Carolina researchers in a July 2004 issue of the magazine Nature.

UNC graduate students purchased 22 samples of red snapper in eight states and subjected the meats to molecular genetic analysis. They concluded 17 samples were not red snapper at all.

The study had a margin of error of 17 percent. But the researchers still contend their results meant anywhere from 60 percent to 94 percent of red snapper sales might be deceptive, a claim seafood industry groups called inflated.

New Jersey consumers can choose from a plethora of both imported and native regional fish species, and the best advice is to know your retailers and their seafood sources, said Linda O'Dierno, coordinator of fish and seafood development at the state Department of Agriculture.

"Most of the products that are sold here are readily identifiable," O'Dierno said.

But there are common problems in the national marketplace, and "red snapper is almost always the one," she said.

"Usually if you see it (genuine red snapper) in our markets, it's prohibitively expensive," owing to short supply and fishing seasons in the Gulf of Mexico, O'Dierno said. "If you see a price that's extraordinarily inexpensive, you might wonder if it's the real thing."

Said Salamone of Wegman's, "We know red snapper is only available the first 10 days of every month. So we cannot offer red snapper after the 12th or 13th day of the month."

The company's product specification sheets go into details of where the fish is brought ashore and sanitation test results from processors, so the buyers are certain of what they're getting, he said.

Food scientist Peggy Hsieh of Florida State University developed molecular-level tests used to positively identify fish species, even using samples of cooked fish. In 1995, Hsieh worked with American Journal television producers to expose the problem of false labeling outside of Florida.

"We found more than 50 percent of those restaurants serving fancy red snapper dishes were substituting other species," Hsieh said. "Red snapper is probably the most popular fish in Florida. When I worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture it was really a major, major problem.

"I truly believe today this problem still exists," she added. "Unless the federal and state governments decide to test more frequently, there's no way to guard against it."

O'Dierno of the New Jersey Agriculture Department said only one species may be sold under the name red snapper, Vermillion snapper, which has an overall red color, too, and can be difficult for anyone but an experienced fish dealer to identify when it's still a whole fish.

"The only real difference is the shape of the head," O'Dierno said.

"Most supermarket workers are not adequately trained to recognize those differences," O'Dierno added. "If you have a haddock and the skin is on, you can tell right away that it's haddock. Without the skin, it could be any number of other species."

Most marine fish are the last real wildlife in most Americans' diets. Consumers have to remember that means freshness and availability are limited to certain times of the year, industry experts say.

"A lot of people don't understand the seasonality of these products," O'Dierno said.

Substituting one type of fish for another - say, Pacific arrowtooth flounder for New Jersey-caught flounder - doesn't always work because "they behave very differently in the cooking process," she said.

For ardent fish enthusiasts, seasonality is part of the attraction. At Wegman's today, "we'll be getting about 40 pounds of British Columbia salmon," Robinson said with a gleam in his eye. "They've had a season opening, and our buyer is getting us some."

The country-of-origin labeling requirement was welcomed by American catfish farmers in Southern states, who have been locked in a trade fight with Vietnamese fish growers over labels.

"Anything that can be done to educate and inform the consumer that there's a difference between imported and American product will be a benefit to our domestic industry," said Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America.

Cage-cultured fish, such as basa, raised in Vietnam's Mekong Delta began capturing some of the American market from catfish growers in the late 1990s, rising to account for 20 percent of U.S. sales, and driving down domestic wholesale prices for catfish to between 50 cents to 58 cents a pound - below the cost of production for most growers, Warren said.

Even Mississippi's own riverside casino industry couldn't resist substituting cheaper Vietnamese fish for local catfish.

"Those guys spent a tremendous amount of money trying to position their product in the marketplace. Suddenly this stuff is flooding in from Vietnam and taking market share," O'Dierno said.

The American growers used their connections in Congress to get a rule requiring that only catfish from the Ictaluridae family, which includes North American species but not the Vietnamese species, could be labeled as catfish. Vietnamese fish producers bitterly resented the American move, calling it the same kind of protectionism by labeling as the European Union has been accused of using against competitive American farm products.

In the past couple of years, the American catfish industry has recovered, selling 30 million pounds at prices around 75 cents per pound, Warren said. In addition to its defense against Asian imports, the industry benefited from a drop in prices for soybean and corn, the primary ingredients of catfish feed, he said.

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