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Because so much of the end product is hunted down on the open seas and then moves through loosely regulated distribution channels before reaching full-service operators, certain types of seafood have always been tricky to source. Throw in the confusion caused by the multiple market names applied to certain species and shady importers looking to make a quick buck and it gets even trickier. Factor in sustainability issues and it can become downright complex. Unlike other protein products operators buy, when it comes to seafood, you have to first ascertain exactly what it is you're buying and how it was caught before moving on to more routine concerns of how much it costs and how much of it the supplier can send to you.

It usually works out for the best, but you'd better be doubly careful if you have grouper on your menu. It's a popular menu item that works well in many cuisines because it combines firm flesh, a snowy white color and a mild, sweet flavor. Operators can prepare it just about any way they want, and grouper, like halibut and sea bass, is an ideal middle-of-the-road choice for patrons. Put grouper on almost any menu and it sells.

It's a beautiful fish, but the market for it lately has turned ugly.

How ugly? That's the question an investigative team from the St. Petersburg Times set out to answer earlier this summer. Their method: buy grouper meals from 11 restaurants in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, then ship them off to an animal DNA testing facility for analysis.

The results: Five of the samples weren't grouper at all. Instead, they were basa (an Asian catfish), tilapia, European hake and something even the DNA wizards at Therior International couldn't pin down, other to say that it wasn't grouper, either. One of the 11 samples was unsuitable for DNA testing, but the owner of the restaurant from which it came later admitted that it was actually Alaskan pollock.

Then the finger pointing began. Restaurant owners caught serving fake grouper sought to shift the blame to their employees, or to the purveyors who sold it to them.

Chef/owner Robert Stea, whose Palm Harbor restaurant Blue Heron's $23 "champagne braised black grouper" turned out to be much less costly tilapia, told the Times that the item was identified as "grouper" on his invoice.

The grouper sandwich sold by the unit of the WingHouse chain located in New Port Richey, FL, tested out as basa. A company spokesman noted that the box the fish came in was labeled "grouper." After the story broke, the WingHouse switched its $7.99 grouper sandwich to feature another variety of Asian catfish and now describes this item as "Grouper teammate" on its menu.

Hooters also sell a $7.99 grouper sandwich that features imported fish from Asia. Its product tested out as a type of grouper, even though the chain is careful to list the item as "grouper cousin" on the menu.

About the only good thing you can say about this switcheroo is that the grouper substitutes were aquacultured species. Grouper is a wild-caught fish whose population is under pressure. Farm-raised tilapia and basa are plentiful.

What does this mean for you? Note that this exposé took place in Florida, where there is a large commercial fishery for grouper and where, presumably, both customers and restaurant owners know what the real thing looks and tastes like. We can only imagine what's going on with the grouper being shipped to Illinois, Utah or similar landlocked locales. Grouper is tailor-made for American palates, but make sure you're serving the real thing. Taking it on faith no longer seems to work.

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