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LA's 'Wet Markets' Could Be On The Chopping Block

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Zoila Isabel Sandoval sits on a hard, wooden chair in front of the spice rack at L.A. Fresh Poultry, waiting to place her order with a clerk. The basket of her rolling walker is piled with groceries. She's in a good mood. Today is her son's 40th birthday and they're going to celebrate with a big family lunch. She plans to make several Guatemalan-style dishes, including arroz con pollo chapina and pollo en jocon, a tomatillo-based stew. To do that, she needs six freshly slaughtered chickens.

A cashier at L.A. Fresh Poultry weighs some chicken. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Sandoval grew up in the farm town of San Rafael Las Flores in southern Guatemala, where she and her mother raised chickens and pigs at home.

"I liked seeing them grow, especially when they had little chicks or piglets," Sandoval says in Spanish.

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After moving to Los Angeles two decades ago, she struggled to find a place where she could buy freshly slaughtered chickens.

"I have been eating like this ever since I was in my mother's womb," she says with a laugh.

When she discovered L.A. Fresh Poultry, a 2,000-square-foot market not far from her MacArthur Park apartment, she felt a sense of relief.

The store sells live chickens, turkeys, quails, ducks, squabs and rabbits, which its butchers will slaughter on site. In the eyes of the law, this will probably make L.A. Fresh Poultry a "wet market" — a business that may soon be forbidden in the city of Los Angeles.

'Living Creatures'

On June 10, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion that could signal the beginning of the end for wet markets. The motion asks the L.A. Department of City Planning, the Department of Building and Safety and the City Attorney's office to come up with "a precise definition" of "wet market" and provide recommendations about which "establishments and practices should be prohibited."

Bob Blumenfield, one of the two city councilmembers who sponsored the motion, told us the information he's requesting is not an outright wet market ban — yet. Rather, it's a "report on the feasibility of such an ordinance." But, he added, "It's the first step to prohibit the sale of living creatures for human consumption in the city of Los Angeles."

Although city officials haven't provided a definition for "wet market," the state of California defines "live animal market," an equivalent term, as "a retail food market where, in the regular course of business, animals are stored alive and sold to consumers for the purpose of human consumption." A further explanation, spelled out in California Penal Code PEN § 597.3, says, "'Animal' means frogs, turtles, and birds sold for the purpose of human consumption, with the exception of poultry."

L.A. city officials are still in the process of working with L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer to write the ordinance, according to Councilmember Paul Koretz, the motion's other sponsor. "The focus is primarily on animals that have unknown implications in terms of diseases they could spread," Koretz told us, although he acknowledges there is no guarantee the ordinance would be limited to animals that are commonly tied to illnesses.

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Although no wet market or butcher shop has been the source of a COVID-19 outbreak in L.A., "There may be hygienic questions in terms of how they operate, and questions of animal cruelty in terms of how [animals] are kept and slaughtered," Koretz said. He told us he has no firsthand experience shopping at wet markets in L.A.

René Rowland, the chairwoman of animal rights organization PawPAC, supports the motion. She told us that whether wet market animals are wild (think bullfrogs or turtles) or domestic (think chickens, ducks, rabbits), "They also endure these terrible experiences of being transported and trafficked in these different containers — in cages, in trucks and planes."

"We don't advocate for any markets to close for business," Rowland said. "We just believe that we need to stop the practice of the on-site slaughter."

Wet Markets And Xenophobia In The Time Of Corona

The city of L.A., which has approximately 4 million residents, has maybe two dozen stores that slaughter and sell animals on their premises, according to a list provided by Blumenfield's staff. Blumenfield says the list isn't exhaustive and could potentially include businesses that are not wet markets. Regardless, these businesses make up a tiny fraction of L.A.'s nearly 1,200 markets and grocery stores.

Koretz told us he doesn't know of any major food-borne illness outbreaks that began at L.A. wet markets, "but there are some people that have become sick from eating some of the more exotic foods." He added that his knowledge of cruelty issues is secondhand.

So why the motion that could put an end to wet markets? And why do it now? One word: coronavirus.

"The fact that this virus potentially started in a wet market [in China] caused us to look at ourselves in Los Angeles, and do we have these kinds of wet markets that are cruel and potentially dangerous," Blumenfield said.

No one has conclusively determined the origins of COVID-19. Many scientists believe it originated in nature in one animal species (possibly bats) then jumped to another species (such as pangolins) before wreaking havoc on humans. In one theory, that transfer happened in a seafood and animal market near Wuhan, China.

The phrase "wet market" can mean a lot of things. Most of them merely sell fresh meat, fish and other perishable food. Others, like the one near Wuhan, also sell wild animals such as bats and civets. Although scientists may never be able to pinpoint the virus's origin, that hasn't stopped politicians or conspiracy theorists or racists from making "wet market" a pejorative term and blaming people or cultures commonly associated with them for the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the term "Chinese virus" to describe the COVID-19. As hate crimes against Asian Americans continue to rise, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently defended Trump's use of the term "kung flu," saying, "It's not a discussion about Asian Americans, who the president values and prizes as citizens of this great country. It is an indictment of China for letting this virus get here."

At the start of 2020, most Americans had never heard of wet markets. A few months later, they were Public Health Enemy #1. Even Canadian Lite Rocker Bryan Adams got in on the action.

By April, the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council's Hate Tracker had received more than 1,400 reports of verbal abuse, assault and shunning directed at Asian Americans, or people who look Asian.

Racism triggered by the so-called wet market-coronavirus connection even trickled down to the business sector. In late January, as the coronavirus became a growing global concern, Chinese restaurants started to see a major slump in customers.

The L.A. City Council's motion to ban wet markets — which only applies within the city's boundaries and not in the San Gabriel Valley, where there are about a dozen such markets — won't only impact Asian Americans. It will impact Muslims, Latinos, Armenians and anyone else who prefers meat from freshly slaughtered animals.

Koretz says he understands how the motion could be seen as discriminatory, but he views that interpretation as the result of a top-down leadership problem. "My only discomfort is with President Trump unnecessarily trying to utilize the hate against anybody different," he said, adding that Trump's divisive and racist language is an "unfortunate side element to this issue."

But Koretz maintains that there's a valid reason for the motion: "We're seeing how devastating this particular virus can be. And this practice, even though it is culturally associated with certain communities, the potential diseases will not be associated with any community. This is targeted towards health."
To Zoila Sandoval, the idea of buying meat that has been slaughtered elsewhere then frozen, swathed in plastic and shipped from hundreds of miles away is hard to accept.

Two times a week since L.A. Fresh Poultry opened 14 years ago, she has made the 20-minute walk from her home on Vermont Avenue to the store. The chance to buy freshly slaughtered animals is precisely why she comes here.

"It's killed here," she says. "It's not frozen and stored for I don't know how long. It's fresh and healthier."

She's not alone. Outside of wet markets, there's plenty of demand for freshly slaughtered, non-factory-farmed, humanely killed animals, whether it's the organic steaks of Belcampo Meat Co. or the organic, air-chilled thighs of Mary's Free-Range Chicken. Never mind the urban hipsters who home-raise chickens, sometimes for food.

'I Am Gonna Die'

Aside from a giant fiberglass rooster (and his small rabbit companion) perched on the roof, L.A. Fresh Poultry is an unassuming store next to the Virgil Avenue on-ramp of the 101. Behind the counter, bills from different countries have been stuck to the wall around a sign that reads, "I love Egypt."

Painted on another wall outside the store, a colorful parade of creatures — including Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny — beckons potential customers. "Why buy frozen when you can buy fresh?" reads the mural. Indeed, in addition to the foodstuffs that any such store carries, L.A. Fresh Poultry has a live animal storage room, where chickens, rabbits and quails are kept in cages.

The market has been a neighborhood staple since opening in 2006. It serves customers seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. This is owner Abdel Salam Elhawary's second such store. The first, Al Salam Pollería in East L.A., opened nearly 40 years ago, and is still thriving. He says approximately 80% to 85% of his customers are Mexican immigrants and the rest originally come from Guatemala or El Salvador. Elhawary also has a third store, Van Nuys Live & Fresh Poultry, which he opened in 2012.

A 68-year-old Egyptian immigrant who once taught French in his home country, Elhawary came to Los Angeles in 1980 and worked in a bank for nearly a decade before getting into the grocery game.

He started his business so Muslims could have more access to halal meats. For meat to be certified halal, whoever is doing the slaughtering must follow certain rules. The animal can't be unconscious. The butcher needs to use an extremely sharp instrument to prevent snags and the prolonging of any suffering. Allah's name must be said during the slaughter. Then, the animal must be hung upside down so the blood can drain. (By way of comparison, in industrial slaughterhouses, chickens might be shackled then electrocuted to death while sheep and pigs might be gassed into unconsciousness before they're slaughtered.)

"We have a Muslim community," Elhawary says, "it's about 40,000 to 50,000 Muslims around the [Koreatown] area. Mostly, the Bangladesh people come, and the Middle Eastern and others."

Hollywood resident Haji Ceesay, 53, is one of the market's many customers. Ceesay, a Muslim who comes from The Gambia, moved to Los Angeles in 1991. Ceesay prefers to consume freshly slaughtered animals for religious and cultural reasons.

"Back home that's what we do," Ceesay says. "We buy live chicken and it's different than the frozen ones here."

Ceesay left the store that day with six chickens.

These days, Elhawary says Muslims make up about 40% of his customers. He says the rest of his clients are Angelenos who originally came from Mexico, Central America, Armenia or Korea. He's as surprised as anyone by the diversity of his clientele, but he's happy to have the customers.

After 40 years in business, Elhawary isn't upset about the provision in the ordinance that would require him to stop selling live birds, such as quail and squab. Demand is low. The provision that would require him to stop slaughtering is another matter.

If that goes into effect, "I am gonna die," Elhawary says. "All my life is doing this. It's not only my shop. It's all over. Millions of people love to eat the fresh one."

"Millions" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's undeniable that live animal markets fill a need for thousands of residents, most of whom, by almost any account, are immigrants and/or people of color.

Sam Sammars, an L.A. Fresh Poultry customer who lives in East L.A., says he discovered the market in 2014 and has been coming once or twice a week since then. For him, it's worth the trip. The meat here is fresher than store-bought factory meat, and the prices are good — $15 to $16 for a large, freshly slaughtered chicken.

"It tastes so natural, as if you're in the farm," he said while waiting in line to place his order.

Sammars grew up on a farm in Columbus, Ohio, where there weren't many supermarkets in the area, so he got used to the taste of fresh everything — fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and fresh meat. Now 35, he says conventional farming and meat production, with their pesticides, genetic engineering, hormones and antibiotics, produce food that isn't as nutritious.

He said that if markets are prohibited from selling live and freshly slaughtered animals without the law making any distinction between chickens and ducks vs. frogs, exotic birds and wild animals, "It would be very strongly devastating."

Concerns And Debates

At typical grocery stores and supermarkets, most meat comes from livestock that has been raised on "factory farms" (or what the USDA calls Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), then slaughtered at industrial slaughterhouses and transported to markets by refrigerated trucks.

"Wet markets are selling a live animal or slaughtering it in front of you. That's very different," Blumenfield says. "When animals are just brought in and killed for human consumption, it completely avoids the regulatory system."

In fact, the state of California regulates how live animal markets, custom slaughterhouses and retail poultry plants can operate. The facilities are inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to make sure they abide by health and safety regulations, which are designed to prevent the inhumane treatment of animals and the spread of diseases. The L.A. County Department of Public Health, for its part, regulates the retail portion of such businesses in accordance with the California Retail Food Code.

Regardless of the oversight process, Blumenfield also points out that the motion stems from a "cruelty issue."

"The idea is: Can we stop this cruel practice in Los Angeles?" he says, referring to slaughtering of rabbits, frogs and birds on site. "A wet market is the opposite of what you would find in a humane society."

Chef Wes Avila doesn't see wet markets that way. He says he used to buy 50 to 80 chickens per week from wet markets in Chinatown when he launched Guerrilla Tacos as a food truck, in 2014.To Avila, the complaints about wet markets aren't about ethics, they're about aesthetics. They just make some people uncomfortable.

"People want to pretend that meat comes from some magic pig tree or chicken tree. That's not the way it happens. It has to come from somewhere."

According to Elhawary, the chickens at his markets come from farms in Fresno or Ramona and he makes sure all the animals he sells are healthy.

"When they have bruises from the transportation, we trim it and throw the bad parts away. We use sharp knives, and we do the chicken fast and accurately. We don't let the chicken suffer," Elhawary says.

Nevertheless, activists who support the closure of wet markets prioritize another concern — the transportation process. Rowland, of PawPAC, says people who want to maximize their profits will transport as many live animals as possible in trucks or planes, which is dangerous and inhumane.

Rowland says she doesn't believe slaughtering animals in industrial slaughterhouses then transporting the meat to grocery stores is necessarily more humane, safer or healthier.

But, she says, "There are no factory farms in the city of Los Angeles and so because of that, we don't have to address that issue."

The proposal to ban wet markets in L.A. is one part of Rowland's larger goal: putting a stop to any activities that cause animals suffering or torture. She says she's starting with California but wants that message to sweep the world.

Waiting Game

Councilman Koretz, for his part, is waiting on the report so he can decide "whether it's a practical thing to pursue."

Although the report was supposed to come out by July 10 — 30 days after the motion was passed — it has not yet been completed. A staffer at Councilman Koretz's office said the city expects to see the report in late July or early August.

If officials want to move forward with the proposal, the City Council will have to pass another motion directing City Attorney Feuer to draft the law.

While officials wait for the city's feasibility report, Elhawary worries. If the proposed measure moves forward, he says he may organize a demonstration with his customers. He fears that if he has to stop selling freshly slaughtered poultry, his three markets will go out of business.

In the meantime, Zoila Sandoval has been watching as the workers at L.A. Fresh Poultry process her order. After she's requested her six chickens at the counter, two licensed butchers grab them from the cages that are not visible to customers. They take the birds to the killing room, where they're slaughtered, drained and plucked. Then, two more workers remove the giblets, wash the chickens and pass them through an open doorway to a clerk.

One of the shop's two butchers, Merare Nataneal, has spent 12 years honing his craft. At 66, he worries the ordinance, if passed, will put him on the unemployment line.

"This is my work, and I don't want to lose it," Nataneal says in Spanish. "It's an uncomfortable position knowing that they might want to close this type of business down."

Behind the counter, a clerk weighs, wraps and bags the freshly killed birds. After paying at the register, Sandoval leaves L.A. Fresh Poultry under the gaze of Foghorn Leghorn, six still-warm birds piled in the basket of her walker as she rolls down Virgil Ave, heading home to make lunch for her son.

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