St. Petersburg, Fla. — The fresh-caught Gulf grouper is the star of the $14 fish sandwich at Crabby Bill's, a seafood restaurant in nearby Indian Rocks Beach. The grouper has to perform if the sandwich is to compete with a $7 imposter on a competitor’s menu down the street.
For consumers, being duped at the restaurant or seafood counter is slightly more likely than losing a game of Russian roulette. In September, the marine conservation group Oceana found that fully 20 percent of the more than 25,000 seafood samples they analyzed worldwide had been mislabeled.
The rampant fraud in the industry — besides shortchanging consumers — can conceal health risks, environmental degradation and human rights abuses and give bad actors an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
DNA doesn't lieJohn Paul, CEO, Pure Molecular LLC
DNA doesn't lieJohn Paul, CEO, Pure Molecular LLC
But help is on the way. A new genetic test might help prove the difference between Loder’s fresh, local grouper and the filet-o’-fish down the street. The St. Petersburg company that developed the test, Pure Molecular, LLC, says it is simple enough to be used by a layperson, cost-effective enough to be incorporated into commercial seafood operations and capable of delivering results in near real-time.
Crabby Bill's is among the very first restaurants to be certified using the technology — appropriately dubbed “GrouperChek.”
“To give an unfair advantage to someone mislabeling an import as grouper when it’s not — that's not in our DNA,” said restaurant owner Matt Loder, whose family has been a part of Florida’s seafood industry for 40 years. Loder prides himself in serving only high-quality, local products at Crabby Bill's and his four other Tampa Bay Area restaurants. “We came up from a fisherman's background,” the restauranteur said this week. “We want to be able to support local people … and not let them be taken advantage of.”
Illegal, unreported, unregulated
John Paul, CEO of Pure Molecular, is a marine microbiologist at the University of South Florida, where he met CTO Bob Ulrich and the two began developing the technology that has become GrouperChek. The test, administered via a third-party portable device, relies on a form of genetic technology called “Nucleic Acid Sequence-Based Amplification” to detect the presence and abundance of certain species-specific genetic markers. It is highly accurate and can deliver results in less than 45 minutes.
“DNA doesn’t lie,” Paul says.
Paul and Ulrich formed Pure Molecular to commercialize their research in 2014. That same year, Pres. Barack Obama convened a presidential task force on seafood fraud, which resulted earlier this year in calls for closer scrutiny of 13 species of “at-risk” seafood imports.
The sheer scale of the problem is dizzying. Global economic losses from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are estimated at between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually, representing between 11 and 26 million tons of black-market fish.
In addition to pressure from lawmakers to crack down on the problem, industry associations and human rights groups are driving demand for seafood-tracing technology, at least partially in response to recent revelations of widespread slave labor in the seafood supply chain. (For more on that issue, see Ending Seafood Slavery: How Tracing Seafood Can Protect Humans, Too.)
This demand has translated into a dizzying array of technologies. The Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists is working to make sense of this welter, and so is ImpactAlpha. We have previously profiled Pelagic Data Systems, which provides small fishermen in Indonesia with a small, solar-powered, wireless device that collects the boat’s location, activity, storage temperature, catch methods and other information.
Pure Molecular is expanding their focus from grouper to other commercially important species, including tuna and shrimp. According to an earlier study by Oceana, published in 2014, nearly one in three shrimp products sold in the U.S. are mislabeled.
“Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States,” said Michael Stephens, general manager of Bama Sea Products, one of the largest processors and distributors of wild-caught shrimp in the Southeast. “It’s also the most susceptible to mislabeling. Even I – who see shrimp all day, every day — sometimes have trouble identifying species by looking at them. Consumers most certainly can’t tell the difference.”
Pure Molecular is working with Bama develop a way of discerning domestic shrimp from farm-raised imports. The two companies are developing a branded certification program for wild-caught, Gulf shrimp, which Stephens hopes to roll out in the next year. In exchange for their help in research, sales and marketing, Pure Molecular has granted Bama exclusive, short-term rights to their shrimp identification technology.
“There's a big difference in price between wild-caught shrimp and farm-raised, imported shrimp,” Stephens said, “sometimes $2 to $3 per pound, so there's an economic incentive for fraud.”
Stephens says there are limitations to a strictly genetic approach, however — particularly in the aquaculture industry, where very different practices might be used to grow the same species depending on the country of origin. “For wild-caught seafood, species identification is great,” he said, “but with farm-raised seafood, it's all about where it’s from.”
Still, Stephens thinks Pure Molecular might hold part of the answer to weeding out fraud — and leveling the playing field. Like Loder, Stephens says he hopes Pure Molecular’s tool might help restore consumer confidence and, ultimately, support a more responsible and sustainable seafood industry.
Paul and Ulrich, who are now operating under a licensing agreement with University of South Florida, are marketing GrouperChek to seafood restaurants in South Florida and seeking venture capital to expand into new markets and products.
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