By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - A pair of Florida scientists have developed a device they say can genetically verify whether imported fish destined for dining tables are grouper or less expensive, potentially harmful Asian catfish often passed off for the popular firm-fleshed fillets.
By early summer, Tampa-based PureMolecular LLC hopes to begin selling the fist-sized machines for about $2,000 apiece, said John Paul, the company’s chief executive and a marine science professor at the University of South Florida.
Retailers trying to profit from mislabeling cheaper seafood as more expensive varieties have come under increasing fire from consumer and environmental activists and from seafood vendors who find it harder to charge the full price for properly labeled fish.
One group estimates that up to a third of the fish consumed in the United States could be mislabeled.
At the moment only the genetic marker that matches up with grouper DNA is available, though more species could follow after the so-called QuadPyre’s release.
Paul said the technology produces results within 45 minutes. Scientists are relying more on genetic data to identify and classify fish, said Jerald S. Ault, a marine biology professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“Genetically, only .02 percent of imported fish is analyzed,” Paul said.
Currently, U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests can take up to a week to produce results, he added.
The ocean conservation group Oceana published a study in 2013 that said 33 percent of the seafood tested in 21 U.S. metropolitan areas was mislabeled.
“Forty-four percent of all the grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues visited sold mislabeled seafood,” Oceana’s report said.
Earlier this year Louisiana Senator David Vitter introduced a new food safety bill aimed at tightening imports of foreign seafood by increasing inspections and limiting the number of ports through which it can pass.
The bill also increases penalties on importers that knowingly mislabel seafood, and seeks to ban offending countries or companies from exporting to the United States.
Ultimately it’s the diners and restaurants that are the most effected, Paul said.
“One restaurant owner told me he has a nice $19 grouper entrée, but he can’t compete with someone ... who’s selling a $5 grouper sandwich that’s not grouper,” he said.
(Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)