Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Playing the Culture Card, Live Markets and the Politics of Food

As I've alluded to several times on this blog, food is a very complex issue. I'm fascinated by food, not least because I can eat so little of it (no gluten, no casein, no eggs, no soy- it's a tough diet) but because there's this whole issue of ethical and humane, sustainable and environmentally sound farming which plays into my mind about what I choose to eat. In the coming weeks I hope to have the delightful Seanan Forbes guest blog for us about ways to source responsibly produced food. (Prelude anyone? Check out the Chef's Collaborative link over ➞ in the Passel of Riches. It's a Seanan recommendation.)

Today however, we have Dr. Thelma Lee Gross, a Veterinary Pathologist practicing in California. Thelma is internationally known (and there will be hell to pay for saying it, but even I'm astonished by the 9,120 Google hits to her specific name in quotes) and the author of several highly regarded small animal pathology texts. I've known Thelma for exactly one half my life at this point and if there is one thing I can tell you it is that Thelma Lee Gross is not shy when it comes to offering her opinions. Live markets have been a passionate cause for Thelma and I was surprised in fact, in sourcing some biographical material, to find a one page commentary titled: Scientific and moral considerations for live market practices in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association from way back in 2003.

How did your dinner die? Is it ever okay to be cruel to animals in order to eat them? Where do we draw that line? Peter Wedderburn of the Telegraph blogged on the issue of Kosher slaughter and its effective recent ban in New Zealand. New Zealand joined Iceland, Norway and Sweden in banning ritual slaughter by requiring that animals be stunned prior to slaughter. Is Kosher and Halal slaughter cruel? The debate is a contentious one loaded with religious and political overtones. To what extent are long-held cultural practices acceptable in modern times, especially when revisited with the eyes of modern veterinary medicine?

Those of us who have been lucky enough to travel outside the US are well aware of different cultural practices and tolerances for what some of us view as food and others of us view as sentient animals and others of us see as both, in one form. We've probably all been to those seafood restaurants where you see live lobsters in a tank. I still remember shrinking in horror at the idea of their fate when I was a child. (I haven't changed my mind, actually.) My love of animals is a large part of why I was a vegetarian for many, many years. Seanan, however, will tell you about the serious issues of sustainable farming of vegetable crops. Because that's not exactly a solution either.

It is my hope that we can discuss food in the coming months from two perspectives- Seanan's and Thelma's. It would be fantastically informative and I hope it works out. These ladies are very busy and I'm thrilled to snag them as I can.

In any case, with no further ado, Dr. Gross:

Frogs and Turtles for Sale
(image credit: Laurel Smith)

Tribalism: Playing the “Culture Card”

On March 4th, 2010 the five-member California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to ban the importation of non-native turtles and frogs for food.  The humane consideration of live market practices, as outlined in my recent article in the Sacramento News and Review, was not the issue; in fact, the commission never cared to consider the humane argument.  Instead the ban was enacted because the imported animals are competing with the native species of California by spread of disease, by competition for food and habitat, and by predation.  This argument is certainly mainstream and popular, and it is easy to see why this line was taken by the commission over the politically more fragile argument of animal cruelty.

During a regularly scheduled meeting of the Commission on May 5th about a dozen market supporters attended the hearing to protest the ban.  Six state legislators also submitted a letter of dissention to the Commission.  The letter was signed by State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and Assembly-members Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale), Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), and Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach).  On May 6, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, "After hearing from the merchants Wednesday morning, Commission President Jim Kellogg promised that the body would reconsider the new policy at a future meeting, citing both the legislators' request and the public testimony."  Thankfully, on Thursday, May 20, in a packed hearing room in Sacramento, the State Fish & Game Commission voted 3:2 not to overturn the ban.  Three of the original state legislators were present and testified against the ban: Senator Yee, and Assembly-members Ma and Lieu.  

Asian American market supporters from San Francisco and Oakland also attended the May 20th hearing, mostly elderly people with no knowledge or sensitivity regarding environmental protection, let alone humane issues.  Their main arguments were "5,000 years of Chinese tradition” and that turtle and frog meat was “good for one's health”.  In other words: “It’s our culture so that means you shall not interfere.  If you do, you are an insensitive racist”. 

This cultural argument is not unprecedented.  See past and current arguments for cock fighting (see also here), Indian tribal hunting of Florida Panthers, and charreadas (Mexican rodeos which include some inhumane practices, such as steer tailing and horse felling; see also here). (Marzie also notes the ongoing battle in Catalonia, Spain over bullfighting.)

I accept that some of the motivation of these Asian legislators was political, for after all, politicians are elected by their constituents and they are paid to pander to them.  But the nearly exclusively Chinese retaliation in this case is suspect.  (The involvement of Assembly-member Furutani remains elusive. Surely it wasn’t: “All Asians should stick together” was it?)  In my view, the blind support of “tribe” occurred without any consideration of the inherent integrity of protecting California habitat and native species.  Neither did it begin to consider the inhumanity of live market practices.  That is immoral, in my view, because it places racial or ethnic identity above other considerations, like the extinction of California’s native species, as well as the barbarism of mutilating animals while they are still alive.  The culture card was used to trump reason, morality, sensitivity, and humanity.  I for one cannot wait until the day when we are all ethnically indeterminate.  Maybe then this madness will stop.

I hope to have Thelma Lee give us a piece on California's Proposition 2, about which she is well versed and has published thoughts. In the meantime, readers of the blog who wish to know more about industrialized farming from a factual standpoint would do well to visit: and read the Pew Commission Report on Industrialized Farming in America (titled Putting Meat on the Table). Even the Executive Summary will give you pause for thought.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


  1. This is a GREAT article. I totally agree that the use of cultural practices as an argument against animal rights is not reasonable and does not proceed when what is being discussed is life and all of its related issues. Life should always come first and there should not be any kind of sophistry against life. Cultural determinism and, even worse, reductionism are not smart ways to project a sustainable future for nature, and therefore for us. It is, otherwise, a dangerous plot to support people's viewpoints that, as you said, are antiquated, selfish and opportunistic in making culture plays the "hero". Culture and its oldest child, society, should be both very carefully examined since they were created by humankind… the same bunch of beings that have been killing those animals without a drop of compassion. Thank you, Dr. Gross!

  2. "I for one cannot wait until the day when we are all ethnically indeterminate. Maybe then this madness will stop."

    Fond hope...

  3. LOL @Michael. I'm inclined to agree with you.

    @Doug- welcome to the blog. i concur that Culture and Society should be reenvisioned.

  4. Well, and there should be a way to accept culture without priviledging it above practical considerations. If "their main arguments were '5,000 years of Chinese tradition' and that turtle and frog meat was 'good for one's health'" then the next question should be, "Very well, but how do you propose to deal with the fact that 'the imported animals are competing with the native species of California by spread of disease, by competition for food and habitat, and by predation' at the same time?" In other words, if you want to keep that cultural practice, give us a better solution to the problems it is causing.

    That completely ignores the humane considerations, unfortunately; but this particular issue wasn't being argued on that basis in any case.

  5. @Michael - excellent point but so difficult to put into practice with some cultures who will cry foul, right?

  6. Aren't the Chinese the same ones who would kill a rhinoceros for the supposed aphrodisiac value of its horn? An endangered species rhinoceros?

    Regardless, I cannot help but feel there is a point at which "culture and tradition" has to yield priority of place to the laws of the country. As well as to humanity and compassion.

    And the manner of death of any animal is important to me-killing an animal is not something I take lightly. I eat meat I hunt-and I practice daily to ensure that death at my hand is quick.

    If I purchase meat/fowl commercially I buy it locally from a free range facility and I inspect the facility to assure myself that humane death is provided.

  7. Jen, funny that you mention your hunting. I was just telling TL about that this morning.

    I guess the crux of this issue is that culture and tradition are relative unchanging. It is what makes them what they are.

    It does happen though. Seminoles and Miccosukees here in FL have forbidden their tribe rituals of hunting and killing panthers in recognition of the Endangered Species law. Of course, there was a federal decision against a Seminole tribe member back in the 80's, as mentioned in TL's post above.

  8. As a first generation Chinese-American and a veterinarian, I read Dr. Gross’ post with great interest. I can’t believe that anyone, regardless of culture or ethnicity, could deny that live market animals are in general housed in conditions that induce significant distress and pain. The cultural difference seems to arise in whether this is considered acceptable, or unacceptable.

    I do not believe that issues of culture and tradition should be allow to supercede the fact that as Americans, we belong to a society which places high value on the concept of humane treatment of animals. In my opinion, anyone choosing to live in this country must understand and accept this. It is also up to us and to our legislators to uphold this ideal. I admire Dr. Gross immensely for her dedication in fighting for this cause.

  9. Serena, thanks so much for your thoughts. We really appreciate them. I'm curious as to what your parents might think, given the same issues? Are they in the same place philosophically as you are?

  10. Well said, Thelma Lee. The rights of someone else's culture end where mine begin in this country. It is ethically, morally, and legally wrong to imperil the wildlife and domestic animals in the US to perpetuate the live markets. The humane issues also weigh heavily with me. There are many cultural practices accepted in other parts of the world that are outlawed in the US (female genital mutation comes to mind). The treatment of animals in the live markets is inhumane and cruel. We don't like that here and we legislate against it. Moreover we try to raise our children to respect life in all its forms (at least I am trying). The people in the US therefore have a culture worth preserving as well. Our country is by no means the best with regards to humane treatment of animals but we are moving that way, and it gives me hope. I will respect the culture of others if my culture is respected as well. As Thelma says if we could be ethnically indiscriminate, life would be easier :)

  11. Valerie, thanks for your thoughts. The issue of cultural practices vs. the welfare and humane care of animals and even our fellow humans is indeed the crux of it for me.

    While part of me doesn't wish to lose all sense of cultural and ethnic diversity, I realize that my pipe dream of retaining that diversity but having it evolve to comprise a greater sense of humane compassion for all living things is probably just that... a pipe dream.