Sunday, January 28, 2007

Woe is the Amphibian: Reflections on Tesco’s Turtle Trouble

Last Friday Beijing saw the grand opening of the first Hymall Tesco store in China. According to the Independent, “Tesco,” based in London, “is Europe’s top retailer and the third largest retailer in the world.” The expansion of its brand name to China, a market with more than one billion consumers, completes the first step in increasing, or even multiplying, profits in Asia. Yet amidst the excitement of opening the new frontier, Tesco is already facing severe criticism from animal rights activists for selling live turtles and frogs in the new store as pictured on the left. Led by Barbara Maas, the chief executive of Care for the Wild International (CWI), they accuse Tesco of “damaging wild population" and practicing “cruelty to amphibians” by supplying them as food and ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.

The criticism that Tesco faces has profound implications about the troubles and blessings of globalization. Although the conflict seems to be a simple one between business and activist groups over animal rights, the matter is complicated by clashes between Chinese and Western cultures reflected in consumerism.

Over hundreds of years turtles have been available in China for consumption to those who can afford them. According to the Independent, “about 20 million turtles are consumed in China each year.” Their role as a luxurious ingredient in Chinese cuisine and medicine is no different from that of other sea creatures such as eels and sea horses. Prior to the establishment of Western supermarkets, turtles were sold in open markets in bundles (shown below), by individual suppliers who harvest them from farms or catch them from the wild. And environmentalists have voiced the concern that consumption of amphibians can disrupt wild populations. Asian governments, as a response, drafted legislations to regulate the market and set up special agencies to enforce them. The Asian Turtle Conservation Network estimates that of the "90 species that are native to the region, more than 50% are listed as 'Critically Endangered' or 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List of threatened species." The CWI’s call to maintain the environmental equilibrium by protecting the amphibians is not new in China. And it is unlikely that by targeting Tesco the CWI will more effectively discourage overall turtle consumption.

As a grocery retailer, Tesco is not setting the precedent to supply live amphibians but merely providing an intermediary market between the farmer (or the hunter) and the consumer. Its decision to sell live amphibians is a response to consumer demand and the price, which has already been established by years of trading in live animal markets. Since open markets still exist as competition to supermarkets like Tesco, Chinese consumers reserve the right to choose whether to purchase live turtles and from where to do so.

Tesco argues that selling live amphibians is justified because consuming turtles is a part of Asian culture. Maas, however, dismisses this claim and asks, “why not sell live kittens or dogs in that case?” The issue she fails to address is the fact that in some live animal markets, there are indeed kittens and dogs sold for the same purposes—as food and medicine. Instead of focusing their attack on large corporations like Tesco, animal rights activists should, perhaps, concentrate on eliminating cruelty by organizing more effective campaigns to educate the Asian public and to bring conservation issues to government attention. Maas argues against cruelty to amphibians, which is practiced by a very large Asian population. Yet Tesco stands to take the blame because it is a large Western grocery retailer. This implies that Western companies are still judged by Western cultural standards despite their need to meet the demand of people in other parts of the world. Tesco, a British company seeking to succeed in the Asian market, experiences an extraordinary amount of pressure exerted by both the Eastern and the Western world, in the form of consumer demand by the former and in the form of ethic standards by the latter. Perhaps Tesco , the commercial amphibian, deserves some sympathy as do the turtles.