Activists use protests and a lawsuit to push for better regulation of live poultry sales
The Heart of the City farmers market in U.N. Plaza may not exude the bourgeois foodie reputation of the Ferry Plaza farmers market. It doesn't sell micro-roasted coffee or artisan cheeses, and its fountain may sometimes double as a public shower, but it does offer one product that no other San Francisco farmers market does: fresh, live poultry.
Raymond Young has sold live chickens here for two decades, showing up at dawn to set up shop and peddle his poultry to an eager throng of customers, mostly Chinese, who happily take home upwards of 600 birds per day.
But a group of animal rights activists is saying that the poultry stand is inhumane, violates health codes, and that Young's employees have infringed on their civil rights as protestors. Since April 2010, members of LGBT Compassion have been showing up in the wee hours of the morning next to Young's stand with banners, brochures, and signs promulgating the alleged cruelty of his business and seeking to block the sale of live birds. In January, protesters upped the ante when they slapped Young and the HOC market with a lawsuit alleging continuous abuse and negligence by those who supervise the market.
"For me, it was as simple as seeing the animal cruelty," said Andrew Zollman, 43, the founder and organizer of LGBT Compassion. "The cages are dilapidated and cramped, there are feces everywhere, and the chickens are shoved in plastic bags, two at a time, while they scream in fear or pain. It was like walking down the street and seeing a dog beaten — and it's really frustrating to see it happen here in San Francisco."
Zollman and fellow protester Alex Felsinger, 25, filed the lawsuit with San Francisco attorney Matt Gonzalez after months of attempts to get city officials to intervene.
The allegations have Young and market management squawking, saying that the activists are opposing a practice that is both legal and routine. They claim the protesters are overly sensitive to the treatment of the chickens simply because they can see it, and decry their tactics as an attack on a small business and cultural traditions since almost all of his customers are Asian.
"These people just don't seem to like other people's culture of selling live chicken," Young said. ""I think that what I do is right. I abide by all the health codes and animal care codes. I try to do everything I can to satisfy everyone. These protesters think they can override the law because they don't like what they see."
Zollman and Felsinger have been encouraging the city to investigate Young's stall, regularly sending videos and photos taken at Young's stall to the Department of Public Health and Animal Care and Control. But their quest to protect the chickens has been complicated by the lack of city oversight and an inability to enforce animal cruelty laws due to provisions exempting poultry.
The clash between the vociferous vegans and the poultry purveyors reached its pinnacle in late December 2010, when Felsinger claimed he was punched in the side of the head, wrapped up in a tarp, and had the memory card from his camera stolen by one of Young's employees. As painful as the altercation was, Felsinger's scuffle has helped him garner support.
Felsinger doesn't have footage of the December attack, but he and Zollman have documented several instances of alleged verbal and physical abuse by Young's employees, including anti gay statements from Young's daughter, which was the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.
"There is a long list of things being done to us over the past year," Felsinger said. "I never expected them to take such a violent act against me. It's not how I wanted to go about it. But it might have the end result we're looking for."
Christine Adams, manager of the HOC market since it first opened in 1981, has consistently defended Young and called the lawsuit "completely outrageous."
"This is a market, and if they (Young's crew) were illegal, they would have been booted," she said. "I have done nothing wrong; Raymond has done nothing wrong. I'm not worried at all about the lawsuit."
Adams said that while she had not been personally affected by the protesting in the past, she did not approve of Zollman and Felsinger's actions and attributed a decline in live poultry sales to their presence.
"Their sales have gone down considerably," Adams said. "They used to sell more than 1,000 birds a day and now it's more like 600 or 700. I think it's definitely because of the protesters. People don't like to be followed through a market and have a camera shoved in their face just because they bought a live chicken."
Almost every market day, Zollman and Felsinger would show up to protest and take video and still photography of Young's stall. They have posted numerous videos and photos to their group's website (lgbtcompassion.org) — the same ones they say they send to DPH and ACC — documenting the conditions at Young's stall.
The DPH makes routine inspections twice per year to the market. In November, Zollman, Young, and Adams held a meeting with principal environmental health inspector Lisa O'Malley to address issues of sanitation, handling, and guidelines for bringing live animals near food. The department says the vendor is operating within guidelines.
"There were some problems in the past, but they've been fixed," O'Malley told us, naming a few instances of inadequate removal of chicken feces from the area and improper hand-washing as past problems. She said the challenge was maintaining the guidelines, the most difficult of which is making sure people do not walk through the market after purchasing their birds. Health codes prohibit animals from being within 20 feet of food. The primary concern is contamination from fecal matter, which could cause illnesses such as Salmonella poisoning.
O'Malley walks by the market regularly because of its proximity to her office and says all operations seem compliant. At the same time, official enforcement and inspection is limited to the Public Health Department's semi-annual visits. This means the only people watching over the operations of the stall and customers are the security guards, who don't start working until two and half hours after the market opens, long after prime time for buying live chickens.
Young stands by his actions and said he is not guilty of any wrongdoing. The activists criticize him for practices such as cutting off the tips of the chickens' beaks, but Young said he only does this to prevent fighting injuries sustained when they are caged for transport and sale, a common practice for any chicken farmer.
In their pamphlets and the lawsuit, the activists claim that the poultry is a "collection of 'spent' live chickens (those who are no longer productive egg layers) from large Central Valley farms," according to the suit. But Young contests that characterization and the activists can't produce credible evidence of the birds' age or origins.
"They don't know how old my birds are. They don't know how I care for them," Young said, refusing to tell us how old the chickens are. "They just assume. What's the difference between Safeway chicken and my chicken? They were all alive at one time, but you see mine."
Young has three farms listed on his permit — in Modesto, Sacramento, and Manteca — that he runs with the help of his children and a few employees. Adams has visited his Modesto facility and reported that the chickens are free-range, seem to be in good health, and are treated no differently than they would be at any other farm. She also supported the accusation that the protests undermine cultural norms.
"How can it not be cultural? All their customers are Asian!" she said. "And why is it only the chicken man they harass? There is a guy who sells quail and pheasants and they aren't bothering him."
Zollman, Felsinger, and Gonzalez call that cultural criticism a diversionary tactic. "I don't even want to dignify culture and race as an issue in this," Zollman said. "I understand that people want to buy live chickens. Animal cruelty issues aside, this isn't a live animal market like they have in most of Asia."
Young and Adams stressed that Zollman could not possibly know about operations on the farm, and that his suggestion that the operation is extremely profitable is absurd. "Do you know how hard it is to work on a farm?" asked Young, a single father of three. "You don't make any money except to put food on the table or send your kids to school. And now I have to pay for a lawyer."
Although the activists oppose factory farms and live animals for sale for human consumption in general, they have focused their attention on the HOC market because it is permitted by the city.
Gonzalez said the lawsuit aims to address three different issues. The first is violating his client's free speech rights by Young and HOC market. The second seeks to compel the city to better identify and enforce alleged health code violations. The third and trickiest aspect deals with animal cruelty laws, which the activists hope will force more humane treatment of the birds.
Penal Code 597 outlines animal cruelty provisions, defining the word "animal" as "frogs, turtles, and birds sold for human consumption, with the exception of poultry." That law was adopted in the early 1900s. Elsewhere the code defines animals as "every dumb creature." But in 2000, the Fourth District California Court of Appeals analyzed the section and deemed that the definition should include birds.
But Gonzalez and ACC say city officials have allowed the poultry exemption to stick. "[The law] refers to live animals and makes a specific exemption for poultry," Rebecca Katz, director of the Department of Animal Care and Control, told us. "I would venture to guess that poultry lobby was very strong at that time."
The ACC, prompted by the protests, inspected Young's facilities and cited him for 700 different violations, according to the lawsuit. Katz mentioned a few instances in which they observed chickens suffering to the point where they had to be euthanized. But most of the citations were for inadequate water supply or holding birds improperly.
"A lot of people eat animals for food, and that's what it is," Katz said. "I'm not a vegetarian, but the way they are being kept is not the way we would recommend they be cared for. Do we think there is some cruelty? Probably. But there is nothing we can do at this time until the law changes."
Like his predecessors, newly appointed District Attorney George Gascón seems to believe that chickens are not protected by state law, regardless of perceived cruel treatment.
"To date, our position has been that there is a clear exception under the law for live poultry being sold for human consumption," said Gascón spokesperson Erica Derryck. "As much as it appears that the treatment of these animals is inhumane, there is nothing we can do to prosecute these allegations under the current laws in California."
Gonzalez disagrees, and his office referenced similar cases in the state in which poultry was protected from cruelty. "Frankly, it's kind of embarrassing that they are taking the position they are taking," Gonzalez told us. "They are trying to avoid a topic that would compel them to do what they need to do. Many in the Asian community and Mexican community see this as an attack on their cultural traditions, and that's not the issue. We see it as a straight matter of misinterpretation."
On a recent visit to the market, the stall appeared clean and the chickens were out of view. The stall features prominent signage in English and in Chinese languages of the ban on bringing live animals into the market, with additional signs throughout the plaza, but customers routinely step directly into the market after buying their chickens.
"This is not easy," security guard Diana Ybarra said while trying to point a man carrying a bag with two chickens in the right direction. "Nobody wants to listen — most of them don't speak English. Everyone wants to take a shortcut right back through the market."
Ybarra and her coworker, Washington (who chose to be identified only by his last name), said that their entire day is consumed trying to get customers to abide by this rule. Prior to the November meeting, no signage was posted and customers just "walked all over the place as if it didn't matter at all," Ybarra said.
"Chinese New Year was bad," Washington added.
The guards see enforcing the rule as an unnecessary waste of time that takes their focus off tasks such as preventing theft. Both said shoving birds in sacks was "messed up," but they were also quick to criticize the protestors.
"Why are they bothering this man? This is a family business and people have to make money," Washington said. "Those protestors came in and fucked everything up, if you ask me."
Young said he resents getting caught up in this controversy. "We are so loyal to this city and to this market," he said. "We have put up with drug dealers and crime just so we can serve the people. Maybe these protesters think differently."
For now the activists are more focused on the lawsuit than remaining vigilant in their protests, hoping it will accomplish their goal.
"I wasn't always so adamant about getting rid of them, it was having people notice something that is animal cruelty," Felsinger said. "It had been good in some ways to have people exposed to this cruelty in San Francisco because it gave us a platform to speak on animal rights. These are egregious offenses and it's hard to ignore when it is right in your back yard."