New handheld device can fish out fake grouper
Matt Loder estimates nearly 12 percent of business at his Crabby Bill's restaurants is grouper, Florida's most economically important seafood product.
But if he's charging USD 19.99 for a grouper dinner while a competitor is charging USD 6.99 for what in fact may be fake grouper, "that makes me look like the bad guy in the marketplace," he says.
So imagine if there was a hand-held device — think a fish Breathalyzer — that would help Loder, seafood wholesalers and food inspectors know for sure that the grouper is grouper and the Asian catfish is not.
It was the prevalence of imposter species and the unveiling of that handy device that brought Loder and nearly 20 other fish industry professionals and restaurateurs to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday for a hands-on grouper authentication workshop co-sponsored by the College of Marine Science and Florida Sea Grant. USF professors John Paul and David Fries led the group through an hourlong experiment of test tubes, pipettes and a tiny machine called a QPyre Handheld Sensor in order to do this: verify DNA markers in fish species to quickly determine what was grouper, and what was not.
This represents real progress from 2006, when a Times' special report about grouper revealed the prevalence of imposter species in the Tampa Bay marketplace. Back then, each sample had to be sent away for testing, requiring weeks of time and thousands of dollars.
This new grouper testing apparatus, about twice the size of an iPhone, is still a ways from being cheap or easy to use. It costs USD 2,500 and requires a multistep process: Extracting a sample from the fish, soaking it in chemicals, purifying the genetic material and then putting the sample into the handheld machine for fluorescence detection (grouper species exhibit a higher fluorescence). Computer software analyzes the data and accurately determines whether it's grouper or not.
A less expensive "blister pack" field version is in the works, using cellphone software to analyze the data. At the workshop, the group discussed the importance of this kind of testing.