The customer seemed like any other when he ordered live bass and red-eared slider turtles from gurgling tanks at Falls Church’s Great Wall Supermarket, a grocery that caters to the tastes of Northern Virginia’s burgeoning Asian communities.
But this buy last spring was part of a weeks-long undercover sting, and the nondescript customer was a state game agent. Weeks later, officers were back to seize most of the seafood counter — including bullfrogs, crayfish, a swamp eel and more — and issue felony arrest warrants for two store managers.
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managers believe Asian food traditions are under attack and the diets of immigrant groups have been criminalized by an outdated law that has not kept pace with Virginia’s rapidly changing demographics.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.
On March 2, 2011, an agent bought seven largemouth bass for $104.31 and 10 red-eared slider turtles for $100. Two days later, the agent was back to buy more largemouth bass, according to court records. On March 16, 2011, the same agent purchased 17 largemouth bass and eight red-eared sliders for $304.69.
Agents returned to Great Wall in the first week of April 2011 and seized 40 crayfish, 29 red-eared sliders, 15 American bullfrogs, one Chinese soft-shell turtle and one swamp eel, according to court papers. The agents warned an unnamed manager it was illegal to sell some of the animals, filings show.
When an officer came back April 27, he noticed largemouth bass on sale for $12.99 a pound, and felony warrants were issued for Jin and another manager, Jinmiao Xia, under charges that are a rarity in Northern Virginia suburbs that are more Fresh Fields than fresh kill: unlawful sale of wildlife. The charges have since been reduced to misdemeanors.
Jin, 25, a Falls Church resident, said he was shocked when he learned a warrant for his arrest had been issued. He immigrated from China at age 12 and has been a manager at the Falls Church store for about four years.
He said he wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Some officer asked me what I did when I turned myself in. I told him I was arrested for selling fish,” Jin said. “The officer said, ‘You were arrested for what?’ ”
Virginia largely bans the sale of wildlife. There are exceptions for permitted activities such as stocking ponds with game fish and selling some animals — including crayfish and bullfrogs — for food. But court records say Great Wall did not have permits to sell those species.
The state defines wild animals as any creature that is not on a list of domestic animals, which include cows, chickens, guinea pigs, rats, llamas and a number of other species but not the eels and turtles sold by Great Wall.
Landers, the DGIF officer, said he could not recall another case of a grocery store being targeted in Northern Virginia, but he said it was not unheard of in the state. He said conservation officers regularly run undercover stings, going after people making illegal sales of everything from piranhas to bear gall bladders, which are used as medicine in some Asian cultures and can fetch $1,000 a piece.
“You really have to be a flagrant violator to rise to the level of us seeking charges,” Landers said.
Such fights over live animal markets, which cross sensitive fault lines involving culture, animal rights and conservation, have often grown heated.
In California, animal rights activists have long pushed for limits on live market vendors who sell turtles, frogs and other animals. In 2010, a handful of Asian American lawmakers blocked such a plan before a state commission, saying the foods have long been staples of Asian diets. An animal rights activist accused the legislators of playing the “race card.”
And after a baby goat that escaped a live animal market was found on a Brooklyn street, an animal rescue group blasted the markets, which largely cater to immigrant communities whose members like to eat meat from freshly slaughtered animals.
At the hearing in Fairfax County court Friday, the store managers will seek to have the charges against them dismissed. Jin said that since the bust, his customers regularly ask him why he is not selling eels, which are considered a delicacy in some countries, and soft-shell turtles, which are often served to women in China after they give birth and are believed to restore strength.
“They are really disappointed,” Jin said.