MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – You expect to get exactly what you order at a restaurant, but DNA testing shows when it comes to seafood, that doesn't always happen.
We went undercover to investigate whether restaurants along the Grand Strand that claim to be offering customers pricey grouper really put it on their plates.
Using a hidden camera, we visited eight restaurants from Murrells Inlet to North Myrtle Beach. We ordered grouper from the menu, took it back to the station and sent small samples of the fish to a DNA lab in Florida.
When the results came back they showed that two of the restaurants had failed.
According to the test results, we were not served grouper at River City Café in Murrells Inlet or at Filet's Steaks, Seafood and Sushi Bar in North Myrtle Beach. Instead, our DNA expert says we were given sutchi, also known as swai or Asian catfish.
Read WECT's investigation in New Hanover County, NC: Here's the catch - Is that fish really grouper?
"That's the first I heard," said Filet's owner Greg Hicks when we showed him the DNA results. "We buy from several different suppliers and we're buying grouper as far as I know."
River City Café is owned by Divine Dining Group in Myrtle Beach. Their executives declined to go on camera, but the director of operations, Darren Leigh, sent us this statement:
"The concerns that have been raised have increased our diligence of imported seafood. We are internally investigating this matter with our suppliers, as well as implementing our own DNA certification of imported seafood products to ensure the quality, labeling, and safety meets our high standards."
Real grouper is expensive. Last week, when we visited Harrelson's Seafood Market, which passed the test, they were selling grouper for $15.99 per pound.
Selling a cheaper version to diners - or to restaurant owners who may be unaware of what's happening - could be quite profitable.
Harrelson's co-owner Denny Springs says Asian catfish has a "drastic price difference."
"You're looking at anywhere from a quarter of the cost to one-third the cost just depending upon how far down the line you can get it," Springs explained. "If you can get it straight from the farm you're getting it at cents on the dollar versus grouper."
Mr. Fish in Myrtle Beach also passed our test.
"No, you don't want to mislabel things," co-owner Ted Hammerman said. "No, you don't want to dupe them. And no you don't want to be in a situation where, 'Oh, it's a tourist town and they'll come sit down once and we'll never see them again.' Well, that's not the case. I mean, we've got to live here, too, as they will."