The selling of "American" seafood has become a scandal. The seafood Americans eat has stopped being American. Ninety one per cent of the seafood consumed by Americans now comes from Asia. At best only two per cent of it is being inspected. Of that two per cent, some ninety per cent is condemned because of contamination.
The scandalous part is that much of that Asian seafood is being repackaged and sold in markets and restaurants as something else. Two of the greatest menu lies are "Gulf Shrimp" and "Fresh Gulf Grouper".
It is possible to get Real American Gulf Shrimp - but you have to work a little harder to find it and you have to pay more for it.
Almost all of what restaurants are calling "Gulf Shrimp" is coming from shrimp farms much closer to the Gulf of Thailand than the Gulf of Mexico.
Asian shrimp is farm-raised in pools in salt marshes near river deltas. Virtually none of those shrimp pools are inspected.
I spent some time in Thailand and North Vietnam. Everybody upstream is peeing in the river. The shrimp farms are filled with water from those rivers. I observed one shrimp farm that was placed between a leather tannery and a cement plant.
The Asian-farmed shrimp are fed mostly meal made from trash fish captured in the Gulf of Thailand and the China Sea.
The ships that catch the trash fish are manned by up to 70% slave labor. Children are picked up from the streets and forced to work on the slave ships.
Chances are good that cheap Asian shrimp is not only tainted, it is morally tainted.
"Fresh Gulf Grouper"
The Grouper are often Chinese Tilapia. The Tilapia are fed chicken waste and grain and whatever else they will eat. Because Tilapia don't eat fish they don't taste like fish, or much of anything else either. They also don't have any of the healthy omega oils that are part of the reason many of us are eating fish in the first place.
Almost as common as tilapia in your Grouper Sandwich is something generally referred to as “North Pacific Codfish”.
The fish are caught and frozen whole on factory ships. They are then shipped to plants in China or Vietnam where they are defrosted, filleted, skinned and deboned. The fish flesh is then pumped up with water and tripolyphosphates. There is a scary word. Read that one again.
Tripolyphosphates help keep that pumped up water in the fish. Because fish are sold by weight that extra water increases the weight and the profits. The fish are then refrozen and shipped to American distributors where they are defrosted for a second time and sold as fresh grouper.
Real Gulf of Mexico Grouper is a big strong fish. They are predator fish. They even eat snapper. The flesh is very firm and formed in big flakes. Phoney grouper is often fibrous and wet and soft and mushy in the middle.
The cooked fish is whiter because the tripolyphosphates prevent formation of that nice golden color fresh fish develope when sautéed. Most tourists think that Grouper is supposed to be soft and wet inside.
So what is a restaurant patron to do?
Keep asking questions and patronize restaurants that can answer your questions. Restaurants that buy fresh whole fish know what the fish is. Real Gulf Shrimp can be found - we just have to pay a little more.
The “Farm to Table” movement has been abused but it gave us something. It made us think about where our food is coming from. It has given birth to a burgeoning new food movement. It is being called the “Integrity” movement. Restaurants with “integrity” serve what they say they are serving and craft their food in their own kitchens. They serve real American seafood. It may cost more, but it is better, and it is safer, and it is worth it.
Remember Chinese drywall? We bought it because it was cheaper. You can eat cheap Chinese processed seafoods if you want to - but don't kid yourself about what it is, and don't let restaurants kid you either.
You didn't have to eat the drywall.
Sean Murphy is the owner of the Beach Bistro and Eat Here restaurants. He writes on matters culinary from time to time to aggravate his neighbors.
About the Beach Bistro: For nearly three decades, the Beach Bistro has consistently been awarded the highest ZAGAT scores in the state of Florida for “best food” and has been honored with inclusion in ZAGAT’s “Top Restaurants in America.” The Bistro also boasts a long-standing Wine Spectator Award and is enthroned in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon Hall of Fame. Beach Bistro is located at 6600 Gulf Dr., Holmes Beach, 941-778-6444, beachbistro.com.