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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Not much in life beats a fresh grouper sandwich enjoyed with a cold beer and an ocean view.
But that experience is far less fun when consumers discover they’re paying a restaurant for fresh, locally caught grouper, yet eating farm-raised fish from thousands of miles away.
And sometimes they never do find out.
University of Florida researchers report in the current issue of Marine Resource Economics that 57 percent of the seafood-eating adults they surveyed would pay more if a labeling program guaranteed that sandwiches and other items contained fresh grouper caught in Florida.
The survey of 400 consumers was meant to show fishermen how much awareness there is about the knockoff-fish problem and whether a labeling program might be worth a closer look, said Chuck Adams, a professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Florida Sea Grant program.
“Basically we found that yes, people were aware of it, and we found that it had, in fact, affected their purchasing of seafood,” he said.
The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation paid for the $40,000 study, said Sherry Larkin, an associate professor in resource economics also with IFAS. Graduate student Andrew Ropicki worked on the survey as well.
The fishermen’s industry group wanted the survey information because they see their product being undercut by inferior imports, Larkin said.
The March 2009 survey found that 62 percent of respondents were aware that restaurants sometimes accidentally or deliberately substituted cheaper fish for grouper.
It also found that most consumers would be willing to pay anywhere from 83 cents to $3.13 more per entrée if it were labeled as authentic Florida-caught grouper, Larkin said.
Seafood substitution is by no means just a problem with grouper – the state’s Division of Business and Professional Regulation logs consumer complaints and since 2006, there have been 1,177 reports of everything from imitation crab being passed off as real to “seafood nuggets” posing as scallops.
But fake grouper may be the hardest to spot, the researchers said.
Many mild-tasting whitefish such as tilapia, basa and tra are often sold as grouper and for most of us, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference.
Here’s how to know, Adams says: A legal-size grouper will typically yield a filet that’s too large for one serving. So if you get an entire filet on your plate, it’s probably not the real stuff.
There’s not as much dark meat as you might get with mahi mahi or perhaps catfish, he said. And grouper has a mild flavor – so if the flavor is strong, it’s either not grouper or isn’t fresh.
Grouper filets also tend to be thicker and flake apart in nice, big chunks, he said.
But if most consumers can’t tell the difference, what’s the harm?
“Two things,” Larkin said. ”One is, if the product is not of high quality, it’s like, ‘oh, OK, I just paid $18 for something that’s … kind of OK.’ That doesn’t do very much for the reputation of the grouper. And two, consumers could just be blatantly overpaying.”
The researchers likened the grouper situation to unwittingly buying a bogus designer handbag or a watered-down “premium” cocktail – nobody wants to be ripped off.
Adams said he’d love to see a program in Florida similar to one in Oregon where consumers can pull a package of albacore tuna from a freezer, run it under an electronic scanner, and get a picture of the boat captain who caught it, the name of the vessel and where it was caught.
“How cool would that be, to do that with grouper?” he asked. “Would consumers want that? Would they be willing to pay a little more for that? This study suggests that they might.”
Writer: Mickie Anderson, 352-273-3566, email@example.com
Sources: Chuck Adams, 352-392-1826, ext. 223, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sherry Larkin, 352-392-1845, ext. 431, email@example.com
University of Florida Professor Chuck Adams shows the difference between grouper and tilapia, one of several types of fish often substituted for grouper. Adams, a marine economist, was part of a team that surveyed Floridians about their willingness to pay for certification that grouper dishes served in restaurants contained fresh, local grouper. Grouper filets, on the left, are much larger than the tilapia filets on the right. The photo was taken at Northwest Seafood’s Millhopper Marketplace store in Gainesville. (UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones)