USF develops device to catch fraudulent fish

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Tourists and natives alike shell out top dollar for Florida seafood, whether it’s fish, shrimp or mussels. Visitors can rest easy knowing the delicious local cuisine they’re eating is authentic — right?

Robert Ulrich, a recent Ph.D. microbiologist at USF, and a team of USF researchers have developed a handheld tool that tells whether a $15 plate of grouper is the real catch or a fishy imposter.

Grouper is the third-most economically valuable seafood product in Florida, Ulrich said, behind only shrimp and stone crab. Mislabeled seafood is estimated to cost the industry and its consumers an estimated $25 billion annually, according to a study by the nonprofit organization Oceana.

“The reason it has taken so much time to get to this stage in development is that we want to solidify our tests as much as possible,” Ulrich said. “This project started out as strictly academic several years ago and has turned into something potentially much more impactful.” 

The group recently created a USF technology spin-off company, PureMolecular, to distribute the device, which analyzes the genetic structure of the fish to determine if it is grouper.

Currently the product, nicknamed “GrouperChek,” costs $1,999, but could lower in price if talks with wholesale manufacturers succeed. 

“The ones that are selling grouper honestly are getting undercut by those down the street selling mislabeled products for cheaper prices,” Ulrich said. 

With commercial fishing rates dropping at a local level and the demand for fish like grouper continuing to be on the rise, the international seafood trade is quite strong.  Many restaurant chains buy wholesale fish shipped from countries like Japan. 

In 2007, the St. Petersburg Times reported that six out of the 11 grouper meals they sampled were actually cheap substitutes. Ulrich said the FDA identifies 64 different fish that can carry the name “grouper” into supermarkets. Currently less than one percent of fish sold in the U.S. receives inspection before shipping, with only 0.2 percent being reviewed for genetic identification. 

Ulrich’s team hopes its technology will help oust the grouper knockoffs and give consumers what they really want. PureMolecular’s current sensor identifies fish associated with a majority of the species that are FDA approved in an attempt to meet appropriate regulations. 

“We wanted to parallel what FDA regulations are for seafood labeling,” Ulrich said. “There’s a lot of parody between what the FDA calls grouper and what evolution calls grouper.” 

Earlier tests took extended periods of time, some even several days, to identify real grouper. In 2011, the FDA started developing an operating procedure for DNA barcoding to identify species. 

“It’s kind of like CSI,” Ulrich said. “You take a piece of fish, get the genetic sequence and compare it against a library of known species to match the correct breed.” 

GrouperChek can do so in less than an hour even if the fish is cooked and covered by breading or sauce.

Several restaurants have experienced product reviews revealing the fish they said was grouper was in fact kingfish, known for the high concentrations of mercury found in their flesh. At-risk individuals, such as women who are expecting, put themselves and their unborn children in danger of exposure to this toxin if consumed during pregnancy.   

In recent years importers have been caught illegally buying large pallets of Asian catfish as grouper to avoid anti-dumping laws and tariffs that would require them to shell out millions of dollars to the U.S. 

Asian catfish, colloquially known as tra or basa, are primarily farm-raised in the Mekong River delta. This body of water is next to mining operations, which pollutes the water and puts those consuming the fish in potential danger of consuming hazardous chemicals. 

Local seafood chains undergo numerous state inspections, but the fish they sell is rarely reviewed by government authorities, leaving room for a lot of counterfeit catch to reach dinner tables. 

Kerra Poll, assistant manager at the Shells seafood restaurant on East Fowler Avenue, said the seafood they currently purchase already meets FDA regulations and classifications. 

“Shells buys their seafood from trusted suppliers like U.S. Foods,” Poll said. “We don’t just buy from Joe Schmo down the street.” 

Poll said even though the technology may not be readily available now, there is a lot of potential for good in the coming years once the device is subsidized. 

“I think it’s a great idea,” Poll said. “Since news of the grouper device broke we’ve had several patrons ask if we carried it for validity purposes. Even though we trust the fish from our suppliers, the device could help improve customer’s beliefs in what we’re selling and make business better in the long-run.” 

Ulrich is hoping to develop other tests for seafood like shrimp, which face a similar problem to grouper in their mislabeling of farm-raised seafood versus fish caught in the wild.

“This could prove to be a very valuable tool for restaurants, seafood suppliers and consumers,” Ulrich said. “We think there’s an extremely large potential market down the line which could ultimately help cut down on illegal fishing activities around the world.”

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