PSI: Putting restaurants to the test

By Jamie Boll - bio l email

Produced by Jeff Keene - email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Fish lovers don't always get what they ordered.  DNA testing has found grouper being substituted with cheaper alternatives at several Carolina restaurants.

WBTV ordered grouper from five Charlotte area restaurants.  Providence Cafe in Myers Park, Bonefish Grill in south Charlotte, Daily Grind in Mooresville, Mayflower in Concord and Hilltop Bistro in Monroe all had the fish on their menus.

Pieces from the orders were sent to a lab in St. Augustine, Florida.  Dr. David Price who performed the testing found Providence Cafe, Bonefish Grill, Daily Grind and Mayflower all served Red Grouper.

Hilltop Bistro's grouper sandwich came back as Blue Green Snapper which is sometimes called a Gray Snapper, or Green Jobfish.

"You're kidding me," said Hilltop owner Spiro Kaltsounis. "I'm legit, I'm a genuine restaurant. I've been here 20 years. I'm not flying by and I want to be here tomorrow."

Kaltsounis says the mix up had to come from his supplier.  He had invoices showing he bought fillets of Grouper.  Those are used in his dinner entrees, but we bought Hilltop's grouper sandwich, which is made of smaller pieces.

"They are the strips, the fish we buy, because the price is a little different," said Kaltsounis.

There is a big difference in price between fillets and the smaller strips.

"It would actually be a tenth of the price," said Brent Schilb.

Schilb is Vice President of Operations at Inland Seafood.  A company that has supplied fish to Hilltop.  He says he was shocked to hear the test results.   Mostly because the type of fish found in the sandwich is not a species Inland carries.   He says all the different types of fish Inland receives are carefully inspected and cataloged.

As for the strips used in the Hilltop sandwich, Schilb says they are sold as miscellaneous fish bits.  They are the small chunks left after a fillet is cut up.  He says the bits, no matter the species, are all sold for the same cut-rate price.

Schilb says customers can request a certain type of bits.  He said Inland tries to provide it, but he said the bits aren't sold with a species guarantee.

"We never guarantee bits," said Schilb.

He said restaurants should be careful how they label menu items that use bits.

Grouper substitution has been a problem for years.  It's led to legal action in states like Florida. The most common substitution is Asian Catfish, which is what was found in some restaurants put to the test along the Carolina coast.

Raycom news departments in Wilmington and Myrtle Beach tested 11 different restaurants in tourist hotspots. Three of the restaurants were serving the much cheaper Asian Catfish.

"Drastic price difference," said Denny Springs of Harrelson's Seafood Market in Myrtle Beach. "You're looking at anywhere from a quarter of the cost to a third of the cost."

The restaurants found to have the mislabeled fish say they will either be changing their menu, or redoubling their efforts to provide the proper fish.

Kaltsounis of Hilltop says he always thought he was getting grouper when he bought the small pieces. He says he will no longer rely on the fish bits for his sandwiches.