Monday, November 20, 2006

Catching more than fish. And it stinks.

A rose is a rose is a rose. But down in Florida, the grouper could be anyone’s guess. An investigation several weeks ago by the Daytona Beach News-Journal found that four of 10 local restaurants were trying to pass off cheaper white fish as grouper. And the determination wasn’t made with a quick eyeball of whatever the investigators were served (Vietnamese catfish in three of the instances, emperor fish in the other). The newspaper sent samples to a lab for DNA testing.

The testing facility then told the Associated Press that similar checks of seafood from 24 U.S. cities revealed consumers have less than a 50:50 chance of being served the variety of fish they ordered.

Authorities in Florida have begun an investigation into the fish faking, according to the AP. A (sorry about the pun) bait and switch could cost a restaurant $15,000 per fake-out.

But follow-up news coverage has suggested that restaurants may not be the culprit. Some have said they, too, were duped—by their seafood suppliers.

The situation is reminiscent of the short-lived scandal that erupted in New York City about 18 months ago, when The New York Times analyzed what was being sold or served as wild-caught salmon. The probe revealed that a high percentage of establishments were buying farm-raised fish for about a third of what they’d have paid for the wild version, then selling it as the Alaskan variety for a huge mark-up.

And restaurant old-timers recall a time when a low-priced veal dish on a menu meant someone had pounded a chicken breast flat in the kitchen and cooked it Milanese-style. But today’s consumer, they attest, is probably too sophisticated to fall prey to that ruse.

It’s a shame that some restaurateurs spoil it for everyone by cheating like that. After being told non-stop how the industry is making them fat, short-changing them with skimpy wages, littering their streets with wrappers, and closing up their arteries with trans fats, the last thing consumers need to hear is how they’re being ripped off as well.

There’s no mystery about what kind of louts the perpetrators are. A crook is a crook is a crook.

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