A Handheld Device Can ID the Fish You’re About to Eat—Before You Overpay for It

Scientists at the University of South Florida have developed a sensor to sniff out seafood fraud.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

The fishing industry is rife with fishy practices. As the most traded food product in the world, seafood creates plenty of opportunities for illicit activities—from mislabeling the country of origin and catching fish illegally to passing one species off as another. But scientists at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science have developed something that could keep the industry more honest: a device that sniffs out seafood fraud.

The handheld sensor, called GrouperChek, tells the user whether a fish labeled a grouper is indeed a grouper with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down symbol. The developers made that fish their focus because in the United States, demand for it exceeds supply (the FDA allows 64 other species to be labeled as such). As much as 38 percent of the time, cheaper fish such as tilapia or Asian catfish are substituted for the real thing.

PureMolecular is the USF-affiliated company that plans to put GrouperChek on the market. The idea is that people can use it at the point of sale, such as while grocery shopping or dining at a restaurant, where fish can be tested even if it’s breaded or covered in sauce. The company is developing software that can test other types of fish as well, including tuna, snapper, and salmon.

Grouper sampling. (Photo: Robert Ulrich)

The technology, which the team promises to make available soon, at a cost of about $2,000, could have a major impact on the growing problem of seafood fraud. A 2014 study found that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood that enters the U.S. involves illegal activity. This past December, the White House released 15 recommendations for fighting the black-market fishing trade.

“[You] take a very small tissue sample from suspect fish using a sterile biopsy punch, similar to what’s used for human skin biopsy analysis,” said Robert Ulrich, the main author of the study, about the new technology. The paper was recently published in the journal Food Control.

The device isolates the fish tissue’s RNA, which is mixed with a chemistry cocktail that binds to target sequences specific to grouper. If it is grouper and not another fish, it will emit a fluorescence level that’s detected by the software. The whole process takes about 45 minutes.

“From an environmental standpoint, having the knowledge that what you purchase is exactly what you thought it was is incredibly important,” said Ryan Bigelow, outreach manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. The group releases sustainable seafood recommendations throughout the year.

“What it all boils down to is, we want consumers to be able to choose sustainable products. They need to know what they’re buying,” he added. “Any sort of technology, legislation, or policy that helps, like the one President Obama is working on now, is a huge step forward for protecting our oceans.”