Thursday, February 03, 2011

One man's delicacy, another's poison pill

IN THIS age of a new Opec - the Organisation of Politically Engaged Celebrities - George Clooney hires satellites to monitor Sudanese troop movements during a referendum on partition; Daniel Craig, Kate Winslet and Paul McCartney lead successful campaigns to remove foie gras from high-end department stores; Angelina Jolie is a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Now, into this 'celebocracy' steps British uber chef Gordon Ramsay campaigning to save the world's shark population from ending up as soup. His recent TV special 'Shark Bait' investigated finning, the method used to source the key ingredient for the dish. During finning, a shark's fins are removed after it is caught but often while the fish is still alive. The carcass, which is worth a fraction of the value of the fins, is then discarded at sea.

In his infamous foul-mouthed style but acting as a moral caped crusader, Ramsay and his film crew barge unannounced into shops in London's Chinatown trying to find the perfectly legal fins as though on the trail of contraband.

He quizzes Costa Rican dock workers unloading fish, demanding to know the location of the source of harvested fins. He interrogates restaurant diners as to their ethics over eating such 'beautiful creatures'. One wonders how long a journalist would last in one of Ramsay's restaurants if they asked his customers to justify what they had on their plates.

Ramsay also visits Imperial, a high-end restaurant in Taiwan, tasting shark's fin soup for the first time. Clearly believing that his Western pallet is the universal arbiter of good taste, he declares: 'It's really actually tastes of nothing.'

Food is a matter of personal taste, and Ramsay can have his opinion. I tasted shark's fin soup once, and that will be the only time. However, members of this new Opec use their status to do more than opine. They reduce complex issues to black and white morality tales and demand immediate action to support their causes.

Shark's fin soup is supposedly a delicacy that was traditionally reserved for the wealthy on special occasions and it has been part of Chinese culture for centuries. For years, only rich Chinese - mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore - consumed it. However, China has seen a dramatic rises in standards of living in recent decades, especially among the middle classes. This has put shark's fin soup within touch of many more people. To satisfy this demand, fishermen traverse the oceans in search of sharks.

Space is limited on fishing vessels. Fins can sell for US$700 (S$890) per kg, 70 times the value of a kilo of tuna. The bodies of sharks are bulky and worth almost nothing as there is little or no demand for the meat. Finning is also carried out when sharks are caught as 'by catch' when fishing for tuna and swordfish.

Conservationists believe finning is exacerbating a crisis in the global shark populations. Ramsay claims 'sharks will be extinct by the end of the century'.

There are over 400 species of shark. To claim they are on the verge of extinction is headline grabbing, but an inaccurate generalisation, equivalent to claiming that all fish are endangered. As with the treatment of geese in the production of foie gras, exaggeration is common place for those who cannot tolerate the cultural habits of others.

The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (Cites) lists only three shark species whose consumption is subject to regulation - the great white, basking and whale shark. Dr Giam Choo Hoo, the longest-serving member of Cites, has said: 'The perception that it is common practice to kill sharks for only their fins - and to cut them off whilst the sharks are still alive - is wrong... The vast majority of fins in the market are taken from sharks after their death.'

Predictably, Ramsay's show led to an explosion of chatter on the Internet. Culinary culture warriors condemned Chinese food traditions and bemoaned the rapid economic growth that means more members of the middle class can afford this luxury dish. Online petitions against finning have been launched. There are plans to organise protests in London's Chinatown during Chinese New Year.

Ramsay has drawn vehement criticism from animal rights activists for hypocrisy: 'persuading' restaurants not to sell shark's fin soup, while his restaurants continue to serve an endangered eel and foie gras - whose production requires geese to be force-fed to enlarge their livers. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Finning may be uncomfortable to watch, but is the production of foie gras any different? Even if one doesn't like the taste or idea of shark's fin soup, what's at stake is the individual's right to choose what to eat within the confines of the law, regardless of what some celebrities may believe or espouse.

By Kirk Leech, For The Straits Times

The writer is a former senior project manager at Understanding Animal Research, a London-based non-profit organisation.