White House wants feds to crack down on seafood fraud

When you order grouper at your favorite restaurant, how do know grouper is what ends up on your plate?

President Barack Obama is ordering a federal task force to work on fighting seafood fraud and to crack down on mislabeled fish.

Grand Strand seafood industry supporters say that is the kind of fraud that helps put South Carolina fishermen out of business.

At Seven Seas Seafood Market in Murrells Inlet, grouper filets sell for $18 per pound.

Owner Chris Conklin says some markets make big money selling a product that's labeled grouper, but is really swai, or farm-raised Asian catfish.

"You can buy that for $3 or $4 a pound, sometimes cheaper just for the filets," said Conklin. "When you thaw it out, it looks very, very much like grouper."

Conklin said he can tell his customers the exact fishermen who caught the fish in his market and the boat they came from. But he says mislabeled imports from dishonest dealers and restaurants hurt the whole industry.

"Ultimately the consumer suffers and the fishermen," he said.

State Representative Stephen Goldfinch of Murrells Inlet said stopping fraud may require inspectors to do spot checks at markets and restaurants and DNA exams on fish.

"I think a swab would be taken or a tissue sample would be taken and genetic testing would be done," said Goldfinch.

Obama wants to fashion a federal solution for tracking seafood but Goldfinch thinks it would be better done at the state level.

He has sponsored a state bill to crack down on seafood fraud and believes South Carolina health officials could handle it.

"We already have DHEC inspectors that inspect food under the mislabeling act that we have now, so it wouldn't be a stretch for them to do the same thing (for fish)," he said.

No matter who does it, Goldfinch said something should be done to save local fishermen, who he calls a dying breed.

"It's not good for anybody to not know what you're eating," he said. "We're asking very simply, tell us the truth what's on the menu."

Goldfinch said things change when consumers demand it, so he asks that when people eat out, they ask their waiter where the fish came from.

If the chef or restaurant owner hears that often enough, Goldfinch said, the waiter will understand how important it is.