Man bites frog

Pop into a couple of the larger Asian markets on Stockton Boulevard, head for the meat section and, sooner or later, you’ll find them—fat green bullfrogs all jumbled up together in translucent box with a couple of inches of water.

Last week, Bites peered into one such bin, marked only with a sign written in Magic Marker on a sheet of white paper: “Live frogs, 2.99/lb.” It seemed like a good price, so Bites asked the man in the white apron behind the counter.

“How do you cook these frogs?” and “Where do they all come from?” But the butcher just smiled and shook his head.

“Those are so good in soup,” a friendly man in line behind Bites offered. “Chop up some onions, put some hot chilies, any kind of vegetables.”

When he got to the counter, the friendly man asked where all the turtles were. They were advertised at $7.99 a pound, but the market seemed to be out of stock. “The blood is very good,” he explained. Simply slice open the turtle’s throat and drain the blood. Mix that with any kind of alcohol, like vodka, and you’ve got a high-powered tonic. “You won’t be feeling any pain at all.” The friendly man didn’t know where the frogs came from, either. Sometimes from Asia, he said, “Sometimes from Yuba City.”

Later Bites learned from officials at the Department of Fish and Game that the bullfrogs were likely from frog farms in the southeast United States.

The agency estimates that as many as 2 million bullfrogs and thousands of turtles are imported into the state every year intended for dinner tables and soup pots.

The amphibian trade is perfectly legal in California, if not very well regulated. But the California Fish and Game Commission is considering a ban on importing frogs and turtles for food at its next meeting on March 3.

The agency doesn’t particularly care what people like to eat. They’re worried about what happens when imported reptiles and frogs get into California streams and lakes—introducing diseases and parasites and generally mucking up native ecosystems. And the animals are often imported from parts of the country (or the world) where their species is already heavily depleted.

The commission has stopped short of a ban in the past, because of opposition from trade associations representing Asian food markets, and worries that such a rule would appear culturally insensitive.

“It’s always been sensitive,” said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals. “Because it appears that one group is being singled out.”

“I’d sooner eat a dead rat,” said Eric Mills, who heads up the Oakland-based Action for Animals. Like Bernstein, he’s been pushing for a ban on imported frogs and turtles for years. They’re often infected with salmonella and E. coli, or carry the chytrid fungus.

And though state law requires live frogs and turtles be killed before they leave the market, the rule is often broken. Customers sometimes purchase the animals for pets or to intentionally liberate them into the wild.

All in all, it’s sort of surprising that the issue—with all its public-health, environment, animal-rights and cultural angles—hasn’t gotten more attention. Mills compared the proposed frog ban to a much higher-profile debate from a couple of years back—when voters decided to pass new rules for poultry farms in the state.“Proposition 2 doesn’t save any lives,” Mills said. “This would literally save millions of lives.”