Legislation in New York aims to ban live animal markets — where fowl and other animals are sold and butchered — in hopes of preventing the next coronavirus.
But owners of New York City poultry shops say live markets that sell and process mostly chickens are being unfairly lumped with exotic “wildlife” markets or open-air “wet” markets, terms they deride as not applicable to their businesses.
“We were never called ‘wet markets,’ and only now with what happened in Wuhan, China, the opposition is calling us ‘wet markets,’” said Abdul Mused, a spokesman for a chain of New York poultry shops. “Our shops have been open since the inception of New York City. This is not new. This is how life has always been since Adam and Eve.”
Earlier this month, two Democratic state lawmakers introduced identical legislation in the Assembly and the Senate that would prohibit “the operation of establishments where animals and/or fowls are slaughtered or butchered for food.”
The bills would set up a task force to determine whether the markets could be safely reopened.
“As policymakers, we have a responsibility to respond to this crisis by doing everything in our power to prevent the next pandemic,” said Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal, who represents Manhattan’s west side. “Closing New York’s live animal markets, which operate in residential neighborhoods and do not adhere to even the most basic sanitary standards, until we determine whether they can be made safe, is a vital first step.”
Critics of the legislation charge that no such “wildlife” market like the notorious bazaar in Wuhan operates in the U.S.
While New York City has some 80 on-site slaughter shops, most sell poultry and are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.
Moreover, food experts say “wet” markets that sell fresh fish, meats, fruits and vegetables are not the same as “wildlife” markets that offer exotic animals such as monkeys or penguins and often are associated with spreading disease.
“No one is going out and catching a bunch of foxes and monkeys. That’s not happening in the live markets in New York City,” said Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety, College of Agriculture and Life Science at Cornell University. “The live markets in New York City are, by and large, poultry … you can go there and see the live animal, inspect the animal, and that’s important for some religious communities.”
An official for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says such markets in New York and California should draw more scrutiny. Authorities in California have found two dozen live animal markets, but authorities suspect hundreds more exist, he said.
“Any kind of slaughterhouse spawns filth and disease,” said Dan Mathews, PETA’s senior vice president of campaigns. “There’s a reason why most slaughterhouses are in the middle of nowhere.”
Opposition to butchering markets is gaining speed in California. The state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday to send to the appropriations committee a bill that would ban amphibians, reptiles and birds from being housed together and sold in markets.
The legislation also would ban the importation of “trophy” animals, such as elephants, lions and rhinos.
“The trade in wildlife both import as well as sales really poses a threat to our ecosystems, our public health, and the biodiversity in this state,” said state Sen. Henry Stern, the bill’s sponsor, at a hearing.
Many Muslim groups say such legislation threatens the religious liberty of immigrants, including many Muslim who seek out poultry shops for halal-certified slaughtering.
“New York poultry shops have been around for hundreds of years and are vital to the City of New York as many groups prefer to eat fresh poultry and meat that they can inspect themselves and also process in accordance to their cultural or religious beliefs,” reads a letter sent this week and signed by Council on Islamic-American Relations-New York, the Yemeni American Merchants Association, Harlem Islamic Community Center and other religious civil rights groups. “This Bill will be an economic disaster for thousands of families.”
New York state law requires licenses for markets housing animals that are grouped on site to operate indoors.
A New York City health ordinance says new markets can’t open within 1,500 feet of a residence, according to advocacy groups.
The New York Department of Agriculture did not respond to a request for the number of on-site butcheries licensed in the state.
Studies have linked wildlife markets to MERS, SARS and COVID-19. However, a report in The Lancet earlier this year found that roughly half of those initially hospitalized in Wuhan with COVID-19 had no history of exposure to the live animal market.
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