Q&A: Will Gergits, Therion International

By

Steven Hedlund

Published on
November 10, 2011

First it was the Boston Globe. Next came Oceana, followed by Consumer Reports. Then ABC News and NPR jumped on the bandwagon.

In recent weeks, a smattering of media outlets, consumer-advocacy groups and environmental organizations has reignited interest in the prevalence of species substitution, mislabeling and other forms of seafood fraud, raising awareness amongst the American public.

A similar wave of investigations and exposés occurred in early 2008, and it didn’t come crashing down until the economic crisis took hold that October. Now it’s back.

And it’s not over yet, according to Will Gergits, managing member of Therion International. Expect more media outlets to be coming out with investigations and exposés of their own in the coming weeks, said Gergits, whose Saratoga Springs, N.Y., company provides DNA-based testing services to identify all types of animals, including fish. Bonefish Grill, the 150-restaurant seafood chain owned by OSI Restaurants Partners of Tampa, Fla., is among the company’s clients.

But this recent wave of investigations and exposés isn’t necessarily a bad thing, explained Gergits. More seafood distributors, restaurants and retailers are realizing the importance of ensuring that they’re getting what they’re paying for, or that they’re selling what they say they’re selling. But it’s still not enough, he said.

SeafoodSource caught up with Gergits recently to talk about DNA’s role in seafood species identification and what the future holds.

Editor’s note: Late last month, SeafoodSource hosted a webinar on DNA testing featuring Gergits as well as ACGT’s Edward Diehl and LeeAnn Applewhite of Applied Food Technologies. Click here to download a recording of the 90-minute webinar, available only to SeafoodSource premium members. 

Therion provides DNA-based testing services to identify all types of animals, from food animals to exotic animals to domestic animals. Compare the level of deception in the seafood trade to that of other animal trades?
You just don’t see species substitution [and other types of seafood fraud] at as blatant levels as you do in seafood. The reason is because there are so many different types of seafood products coming from all over the world. And a major percentage of it is still wild caught.

How’s business? 

Just within the last six months to a year, we’ve seen a very rapid increase in interest in our services. And I believe it’s because there’s been so much attention in the public media and from organizations like Oceana and Consumer Reports that the industry is finally saying, “OK, we better do something about it.” And others are saying, “We want to make sure we have the best business practices and that we’re not being cheated from the people we’re buying from. And we want to be able to tell our clients that we’re not cheating them.”

We saw an increase [in business] in early 2008 as well, and it was because of the Florida grouper problem that we, along with the St. Petersburg Times and Ft. Myers News-Press, uncovered — just how much species substitution there was with grouper. That created a national upwelling of interest. And all of a sudden in four or five months we were doing testing for [media outlets] in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix. But when the economy crashed, it stopped — it just died. Why? When the economy crashes, seafood sales are down and restaurants sales are down, so companies cut back in QA and QC testing. Every time there’s a recession, people stop doing testing. That’s the first thing that goes — that and R&D. So what happens? More fraud occurs because there’s less testing.

Even if seafood fraud is as prevalent as it’s ever been, awareness of the problem must be on the rise. Do you agree? 

The first time I gave a presentation on seafood fraud [at the International Boston Seafood Show] was five years ago. And everyone [in the audience] was very quiet and reserved. They really didn’t want to discuss it. So I got on the bus on the way back to the hotel, and an elderly gentleman sat next to me and said he liked my presentation. He said he’s been in the industry for a long time, and he remembers when he first started learning how to prepare whitefish for sale. He was told that if you cut the fillets in this shape you can sell it as cod, and if you cut the fillets in that shape you can sell it as perch, and if you cut the fillets in this shape you can sell it as something else. It’s not like this is something new.

But now the industry is admitting that it’s there and it’s doing something about it. Without public outcry or government oversight, it probably wouldn’t happen as quickly as it is.

Ultimately, who’s responsibility is it to mitigate seafood fraud? If state and federal agencies don’t possess the resources, or willingness, to enforce the rules, is it up to the big players to lead by example? 

It’s the companies that want to establish themselves as having the best product or the best brand. Sometimes it’s not a big company. Sometimes it’s a small company or a medium-sized company. So they’re out there putting out a better product and they’re doing DNA testing, and they make the big guys look bad.

What sets Therion apart from the competition? 

We’ve been in the DNA business since its infancy. When you first started hearing about DNA fingerprinting in this country, it was us. Not necessarily myself and my partner [Dr. Nancy Casna], but the company we were working for in the mid-‘80s [Lifecodes]. So we’ve been involved in DNA for a long time.

Why is experience so important? 

DNA testing is still a little bit of an art form and a lot of science. If you have experience, then when nuances occur you have the ability to tweak those nuances and make sure you get good results. Having the expertise allows you to work with just about anything you get, and it allows you to create and develop additional technologies for additional species. And that’s very important, because there is a gamut of seafood species that no one is doing anything with that we at Therion are continually trying to develop new assays for. Besides having 25 years of experience, we’ve developed more novel techniques than anyone else out there.

So what’s next? Will seafood companies back away from DNA testing once the media frenzy dies off, or is this a wake-up call? 

Initially what’s going to happen is we’re going to see companies of all sizes … doing routine testing. They’re going to have to because the government’s going to be looking over their shoulder a little more and because the marketplace is going to demand it.

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