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managers believe Asian food traditions are under attack and the diets of immigrant groups have been criminalized by an outdated law that has not kept pace with Virginia’s rapidly changing demographics.
The unusual food fight is one of a handful between conservationists, animal rights activists and immigrant communities that have flared in such diverse, liberal enclaves as the D.C. suburbs, San Francisco and New York. Great Wall is one of the largest international grocery stores in the Washington area, and the case against it could become a test for other retailers in Virginia that sell live animals.
In the Fairfax County case, the store managers have been charged under a Virginia law that aims to protect native species by stemming poaching of wild animals for valuable meat, pelts and antlers. The animals seized at Great Wall are not endangered, but many are banned from sale because they are classified as wildlife.
Kai Wei Jin, one of Great Wall’s managers, said all the animals on sale were farm-raised, not plucked from local forests or streams.
Jin and his fellow manager are fighting the charges and want Virginia’s wildlife law changed, said their attorney, Shaoming Cheng.
“If Chinese people like to eat yellow eels and it’s part of their traditional diets — just like Russian people like to eat fish eggs — and those eels are farm raised and are not an endangered species
. . .
why not?” Cheng said.
Authorities declined to discuss the case because it was pending in court, but Rich Landers, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) officer, said that, in general, the law is needed to keep wild animal populations healthy.
“History has show when wildlife becomes commercialized, the population dwindles,” Landers said. “Whether it’s elephant tusks or whales, we are trying to reduce the chances that wildlife becomes commercialized.”
Great Wall, part of a popular and growing chain of stores in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and other states, caters to Asians, offering everything from canned vegetarian duck to a dim sum station. The vast Gallows Road store is regularly packed with Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai immigrant shoppers.
Great Wall’s trouble began last March, when a “concerned citizen” who professed to be acting to preserve native species reported the seafood counter to the state, according to court documents. DGIF officers launched a two-month investigation during which they spent hundreds of dollars on the undercover buys.