USF duo's device promises to sniff out fish fakes

- At Versaggi Shrimp Corporation, Sal and his family have been fishing the waters off Tampa Bay for over 100 years.  "The substitution wasn't as rampant years ago when I first got into the business because the imports weren't as high," he offered.

Today, about 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported from other countries.  China is one of the biggest suppliers.

It's a big business, and the temptation to cheat is high.  "It's quite an elaborate scheme and it's called traceability," Sal explained.

Here's how it works. Fishermen in Vietnam or other countries drop their catch -- for instance, Asian catfish -- in China, where it's filleted, repackaged and shipped to the U.S., sometimes mislabeled as grouper or other fish products like red snapper. It's an illegal practice designed to avoid taxes and other regulations and rake in millions.

According to Sal, the chances of the product getting into the country are extremely good because the inspection rate is so low.

It's just the kind of problem that hooked USF biology professor John Paul. Think of him as a kind of seafood sleuth.  Together with colleague Bob Ulrich, they developed GrouperChek, a hand-held machine to check the authenticity of fish using genetic testing.

"The reason we decided to look at seafood is because recent studies have shown that about 30 percent of the seafood entering this country is mislabeled, meaning that it is mislabeled as a more expensive product than it really is," Paul said.

Traditional DNA sequencing takes 12 hours. John and Bob have been able to cut it down to 45 minutes. "We found it to be 100-percent accurate when we cross-tested it through traditional DNA sequencing methods," Paul continued.

GrouperChek is small, portable, and plugs into a laptop computer. Each test costs $30 -- cheap and efficient enough for food inspectors to use on raw or cooked fish at dockside warehouses, restaurants, and grocery stores. 

Once their technology is fully developed, they plan to expand its use to other popular seafood on restaurant menus and at fish markets.

At I.C. Sharks, one of St. Petersburg's top seafood restaurants, they claim to have a foolproof way to make sure the fish you order is what you'll eat.  "We buy all of our seafood from locally sourced commercial fishing boats," insisted William Glosson, a manager for the restaurant.  "The main danger is really not being totally aware of what the restaurant might be receiving, and in turn you may not know what you're getting on your plate."

In the future, a device like GrouperChek could make sure you never get duped at the dinner table again.

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