The City Council voted Tuesday to prohibit the sale of live chickens at the Richmond’s Certified Farmer’s Market, igniting an eruption of cheers from animal rights supporters who filled City Hall.
The crowd, which consisted mostly of visitors to Richmond, was there on a larger animal-rights agenda, fueled by a recent victory in banning live chicken sales at the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market in San Francisco. Despite the determination of supporters, the ban will affect only one vendor at Richmond’s Farmer’s Market, and then only for two months.
The ban will take effect October 31, when the Richmond Certified Farmer’s Market contract is due for renewal. The state of California is banning the sale of live animals in parking lots and on sidewalks beginning in 2012. Though there was some confusion over the state’s legislation, Richmond City Attorney Randy Riddle assured the council that the ban will include poultry.
“When we know that in January this will be banned, my position is such that, let us get comfortable with the contract that is inline with what we know will be state law coming up very soon,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said.
The live-chicken vendor, Raymond Young, has had repeated public confrontations in San Francisco with two of the groups present Tuesday night: LBGT Compassion Group and In Defense of Animals. In Richmond, the groups said they found the same health code violations and animal cruelty instances that they found at Young’s previous operation in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s ban left Richmond as the sole city in the Bay Area where Young could sell live chickens. He sells about 700 birds a week at the Richmond Certified Farmer’s Market, according to the market’s president, Tom Cloman.
Live animal sales are allowed, but not within 20 feet of produce and eggs, according to the California health code. Violations occur whenever a customer buys a chicken, which Young and his workers put into paper and plastic bags, and the customer then walks around the market shopping for produce.
The health regulation exists to prevent feces, which carries bacterial disease, from spreading through the farmer’s market. The public is directly exposed to feces on the outside of the plastic bags and on the workers, said Andrew Zollman of the LGBT Compassion Group, and the feces is then carried around the market and onto public transit.
According to the code, signs must be posted instructing customers in three languages – English, Spanish, and Chinese – not to walk around the market after they have purchased the chickens.
But it’s a difficult rule to enforce and requires extra resources from city.
“We can’t fix the this problem, it’s impossible,” said Denise Bolbol in the public comment session. “I watched multiple security guards unable to keep these people 20 feet from other vendors with chickens in their bags.”
Though the chicken-vendor Young has received several environmental health code violations at Richmond, he has corrected his violations prior to the next inspection every time, said LaShonda Wilson, the assistant city manager. Cloman, the market manager, confirmed this in his brief objection to the prohibition.
Pathogens and disease were also a common theme in the argument against selling live chickens. A statewide surveillance program that conducts health inspections on chickens “that are spotty” only checks for Avian influenza and Newcastle virus, and does not check for bacterial infections, Wilson said.
Due to lack of resources, the state has given Young kits to test the chickens himself and then requires him to submit the results to the state. Animal rights supporters said they didn’t trust his reporting.
The LGBT Compassion group has questioned Young’s credibility before, arguing that he is not actually involved in raising the chickens, but instead buys them from large producers such as Gemperle Farms. Since these farms are fully automated, Zollman said, Young couldn’t possibly be doing any of his own farming.
One concern, said Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, is that selling factory-farmed chickens at a farmer’s market misleads the consumer into thinking the chicken is organic.
Though he agreed that factory farming was disturbing, Councilmember Tom Butt said that it is important for children to see where their food comes from, which was the primary reason that he didn’t vote to support the ban.
“Most people don’t know where food comes from,” Butt said. “They think it comes from the grocery store. I think it does people good to see where food comes from, to realize that that chicken breast comes from an animal with feathers on it and it doesn’t come from a package.”
The ban is an act of discrimination, Cloman said, which is the same argument brought against the animal rights groups in San Francisco by Young.
“These groups have literally pounded this Asian farmer to run him out of business,” Cloman said.
Cloman barely got through his argument when his public comment time ran out and the crowd loudly interrupted and hurried him off the podium.
Over the yells of the crowd, Cloman turned to the council. “Don’t let this group bully you,” he said, his voice barely audible.
Cloman found his only other support from a dissenter in the crowd who labeled the issue one of meat-eaters versus vegetarians.
The dozens who had come out to speak against Young had already been protesting Richmond’s Certified Farmer’s Market, and had bombarded Mayor McLaughlin with 1,015 emails.
The City Council’s ban will only be effective for two months – starting October 31, when the contract is redrawn, and ending in 2012, when the state laws override the council. McLaughlin said she didn’t want the city to spend valuable resources on this issue, even for two months.
“I certainly believe that our staff will have to continue to monitor this and I do not think this is good use of our staff’s time over the next two months,” McLaughin said.
“I am torn,” Councilmember Jovanka Beckles said. While she said she didn’t necessarily agree with the animal rights’ groups, she agreed that the city needs to allocate its valuable resources to other issues.
The final vote was 4-2. It was hard to hear the announcement of the votes over the roar of excitement from the ban’s supporters, but with Councilmember Nat Bates absent, Butt and Councilmember Corky Booze were the only voters against the prohibition.