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Florida expands grouper probe

TALLAHASSEE Fla. Florida’s attorney general is expanding his yearlong investigation of restaurants’ mislabeling of cheaper fish as grouper, with the focus now shifting to distributors.

Attorney General Bill McCollum has ordered Palmetto, Fla.-based Sysco Food Services-West Florida to hand over records of all fish product transactions in 2006, the names of all employees handling imported fish during 2006, and the results of verification tests conducted over the past four years.

Calls to Sysco had not been returned by the time of this posting. But the company told local media that it did not knowingly sell fake grouper.

Eight other distributors and a company that tests fish for Sysco also are being questioned.

At this time, we are focusing on the distributors to determine whether or not restaurants knew what they were purchasing and paying for, and these distributors were supplying the restaurants we originally investigated,” said Sandi Copes, press secretary for McCollum.

In the summer of 2006, DNA tests commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times found 11 restaurants in the Tampa, Fla., area that were selling inexpensive species of white fish as grouper.

Copes said that the Sysco operation is the central focus because of its size and because its practices may be indicative of industry trends.

In published reports, Sysco-West Florida said it has turned over all subpoenaed documents and is cooperating fully with authorities.

The St. Petersburg Times’ 2006 report prompted other news outlets around the state to undertake their own inquiries. At the time, it was alleged that some importers had been substituting less-expensive, farm-raised fish from Southeast Asia for fresh grouper and selling it to unknowing operators.

Many of the restaurants accused of selling fake grouper had invoices saying they had bought the authentic seafood, and most insisted they had no way of knowing the difference. Still, 10 restaurants have settled with the attorney general’s office, paying civil penalties of up to $5,000 under Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, Copes said.

Those places that have paid fines include La Teresita Cafeteria in Tampa; Wing House units in New Port Richey, Largo, Lakeland and Tampa; Seminole Family Restaurant in Seminole; Woody's Waterfront Cafe in St. Petersburg Beach; 4th Street Shrimp Store in St. Petersburg; Casual Clam in St. Petersburg; and Coquina Blue in Tampa.

In June, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation doubled the fine for selling other species of fish as grouper to $500, up from $250.

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