Asian Food Traditions Under Attack?

A Virginia supermarket is headed to court after selling turtles, bullfrogs, and eels.

red-eared slider turtle
Are the diets of Asian immigrants—including red-eared slider turtles (pictured)—being criminalized in Virginia? (Photo: Don Farrall/Getty Images.)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A food fight over the sale of live animals at an Asian seafood counter is heading to a Virginia court this week.

The supermarket chain, Great Wall, is accused of selling live largemouth bass, red-eared slider turtles, American bullfrogs, a swamp eel, crayfish and more, in violation of state wildlife laws that prohibit their sale.

According to the Washington Post, agents from the Department of Game and Inland fisheries visited the store on several occasions on an undercover sting, and were able to purchase a number of seafood items that were illegal.

A TakePart call and email to Great Wall seeking comment was not returned.

While the incident prompted concerns that non-native animals be released into the wild instead of being served up as supper, it also called into question a sensitive cultural issue that many law enforcement officials are reluctant to step into.

“We don’t look for these problems. A citizen called in and complained, and we’re required to respond to the complaint,” says Sgt. John Cobb of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “In this case, there were a number of different animals involved. The one that threw up the biggest flag was the largemouth bass. It was labeled mainland rockfish, so we brought in a biologist to ID the fish.”

Reporter Justin Jouvenal writes, “The case, set to play out at a hearing in Fairfax County court later this week, has pitted a conservationist who tipped off authorities against a popular market whose managers believe Asian food traditions are under attack and the diets of immigrant groups have been criminalized by an outdated law that has not kept pace with Virginia’s rapidly changing demographics.”

Indeed, live markets themselves have the potential to be a sensitive touchstone. According to a census report released last week, Asians were the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. between 2000-2010.

Patrick Kwan, New York state director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says it’s concern over cultural sensitivities that have stalled work from being done on the issue. HSUS worked with state lawmakers to pass legislation in 2008 that prohibited new live animal slaughter markets from opening within New York City, but that moratorium expires in August.

The issue of selling live animals for food is more complicated than it might seem. It crosses lines between wildlife conservation efforts, health department regulations and the humane treatment of animals.

Adrianna Shea, deputy director of California’s Fish and Game Commission, says the topic surfaced in 2006, 2010 and again in 2011, but that the state doesn’t have an exact tool to fix the problem, nor does she expect the Commission to take formal action any time soon.

“It’s very controversial because it primarily affects Asian markets, and we have a very large Asian community in California,” Shea tells TakePart. “It would also impact the sale of [live] lobster, and can affect the pet trade. It’s very complicated.”

Judith Pederson, MIT Sea Grant advisory leader, has done work on the live seafood industry, and points to high-profile invasive species like snakehead or Chinese mitten crabs as a reason for consumers to be concerned.

“If animals from live markets get released, they can carry diseases or interfere with native species. And sometimes they can destroy an ecosystem. The Chinese mitten crab, for example, can erode the banks of rivers,” she says. “While the Northern snakehead is a high-level predator and feeds on other species.”

When you’re dealing with the environment, local laws, and long-standing traditions, it's evident: Finding middle ground isn’t as easy as it seems.

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