TAMPA — The market is showing an interest in technology developed through the University of South Florida that can instantly determine whether a grouper is really a grouper.
In the future, similar technology may signal whether wild-caught shrimp, tuna and red snapper live up to their claims, and even whether that glop floating offshore is really an example of the scourge known as red tide.
A USF professor and former graduate student obtained a patent last year on GrouperChek, a test that identifies the target gene in grouper to determine whether it’s actually grouper or a common substitute such as tilapia or catfish.
The company began offering services to wholesalers and retailers last year, selling test kits and conducting in-house identification of grouper or any seafood. They even drive out to pick up samples.
“We can tell any fish, or even any form of life, really,” said Professor John H. Paul, who developed the technology with Robert Ulrich. They now are partners in the new venture PureMolecular LLC, “bringing fraudulent, mislabeled seafood to light,” Paul said.
The company has gotten the attention of interests including the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, which supported Paul and Ulrich during their research, and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, where an investment agreement is up for review.
“Our review team was very impressed,” said Downtown Partnership President Joni James.
Matt Loder, founder of Crabby Bill’s, with three restaurants in Clearwater and St. Cloud, applauded GrouperChek as a way to hold wholesalers and retailers accountable.
“We understand the good that product can produce,” Loder said, “especially for the enforcement arm to have that tool available to make sure less mislabeled fish is out there.
“I don’t want a competitor to be able to say, ‘Oh we’re selling grouper,’ and be able to say they have something comparable to me. They may know it’s mislabeled but if the invoice or the box says grouper they can say, ‘We bought it thinking it was grouper,’ even though they spent half the money.”
Ulrich and Paul hold 13 patents with USF, some on technology that detects pathogenic viruses, norovirus and the fish-killing bloom known as red tide. PureMolecular is teaming up with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use its technology in detecting red tide from Naples to Tampa Bay.
In September, Paul won one of five USF Excellence in Innovation awards for his work with PureMolecular. Now, he and Ulrich are looking for venture capital to set up a new location at the Tampa Bay Research Institute, 10900 Roosevelt Blvd. N. in St. Petersburg.
PureMolecular has updated its original GrouperChek technology. The company now uses a more lightweight, portable platform called AmpliFire to read GrouperChek tests instead of trying to develop its own instrumentation. The system works with individually sold GrouperChek tests and can run up to eight samples at once on site. The old GrouperChek system had a limit of four.
Upon its release, GrouperChek was priced at $1,999, but with the changes comes a higher cost. Ulrich said test kits run about $40 per fish sample, though prices are being adjusted. If customers choose AmpliFire to read the tests, a device could cost up to $5,000 — a serious investment but not compared to the estimated $25 billion in mislabeled seafood sold worldwide each year.
PureMolecular is also developing ShrimpChek. Paul says shrimp is often mislabeled “wild caught” when it was farm raised under unsanitary conditions. Other company products nearing the end of development will detect tuna, red snapper and the common faux grouper known as Asian catfish.
“We’re hoping to bring those to market very soon,” Ulrich said.
Shrimp is the most economically valuable seafood product in Florida, followed by stone crab and grouper.
Washington showcased the problem of mislabeled seafood when President Barack Obama signed the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act in November, prohibiting illegally harvested fish from entering the United States. Federal forensic scientists must verify the fraud. Fines range up to $100,000 and prison time also is possible.
PureMolecular hasn’t run across any cases of fraudulent grouper locally yet, even in testing 10 samples from local restaurants gathered by WTSP Channel 10. All turned out to be red or black grouper.
It was a different story in Atlanta, where seven of 19 samples gathered by WSB-TV Channel 2 and tested by PureMolecular turned out to be the bottom-feeding Asian catfish. Five of the restaurants involved later claimed they were duped by vendors.
And it was a different story, too, in 2006, when a news report in the St. Petersburg Times led to testing by the state State Attorney’s Office that revealed 17 grouper meals from 20 restaurants were bogus. A wholesaler and several restaurants agreed to pay thousands each in fines.
Most restaurants buy whole fish off the dock and can identify a real grouper there, but problems arise with frozen fillets from southeast Asia that are actually tilapia, catfish or a mix of these fish and grouper, Paul said.
“I haven’t found a fake fish in Florida yet,” he said.
And that’s OK with him.
“We’re not out to catch bad guys. We’re just trying to level the playing field and provide consumer confidence. We want to provide support for our American fisherman to get an honest day’s pay. It’s tough enough being a grouper fisherman.”
Selene Sanfelice is a University of Tampa student and a Tribune intern.