John Harry was in the mood for chicken curry, so he walked two blocks from home to pick out a couple of birds.
His destination was a squat warehouse surrounded by auto body shops, a scrapyard, and a school bus depot in the working-class neighborhood of Richmond Hill in Queens, New York. Inside was riotously loud, with the cries of chickens, duck, quail, guinea fowl and the tender pigeons known as squab, jostling for space and pecking seed in tall metal cages. In another room was a pen with lambs and goats butting heads and chewing alfalfa.
The warehouse smelled powerfully of feathers and droppings, but Harry, a Guyanese construction worker in his 50s, seemed unfazed. He pointed out two broiler hens to a man in overalls who grabbed them, hung them by their legs from a scale, then carried them into a room strewn with feathers and drew a knife across their throats.
“You can put your rice to boil, come get a chicken, be home before it burns,” Harry said. “Can’t get fresher than this.”
The market he frequents, Madani Halal, is one of more than 80 in New York City that stock live animals and slaughter them on demand for customers. The markets are considered vitally important in many immigrant communities for cultural, religious or health reasons, contributing to the diverse culinary landscape for which New York is famous. Since the 1990s the number of markets has nearly doubled, concentrated mostly in outer-borough immigrant neighborhoods. But since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, widely thought to have spread from a live animal market in China, a group of New York lawmakers has sought to shut these markets down, fearing that they pose a disease threat.
Bills currently before the New York assembly and senate have requested an immediate moratorium on all live animal markets in the city. If passed, they would see the markets closed until a proposed new taskforce investigates concerns about public health and animal welfare in the sector.
But critics of this plan, including researchers and community activists, say it unfairly targets immigrants, and is unlikely to reduce the risk of disease. They argue that it blurs issues of health and animal rights while overlooking the wider harms of industrial meat production.
“This isn’t about food safety,” said Richard David, an activist from south Queens, home to a large number of the city’s live markets. “This is about food justice.”
Some so-called “wet markets” in Asia, named for the common practice of hosing them down with water, stock exotic wildlife alongside live animals, providing a potential nexus for diseases to spread. This has led to growing calls around the world to ban them, even though the precise history of the coronavirus pandemic, widely thought to have originated at a seafood market in Wuhan, is still unclear.
But the term “wet markets” has become confusing in the process, mixing up wildlife consumption with less exotic traditions, such as the poultry markets of New York. This has led to a situation where, in the rush to create a safer food system, culturally significant food practices, which pose comparatively minor public health risks, are coming under threat.
In New York, animal rights groups have begun campaigning vigorously on issues of food safety, including staging protests outside markets. A recent petition by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) urges officials to shut down “blood-soaked slaughterhouses” in New York, specifically referring to the facilities as “wet markets” in an accompanying video. Peta has also urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to denounce live animal markets globally. The WHO has resisted these demands, saying that live markets provide food and jobs for millions of people.
“Nobody is in favor of unsanitary markets,” said Nevin Cohen, a professor of public health at the Cuny Urban Food Policy Institute. “But instead of the kneejerk reaction of shutting them down, there are other policy tools, such as updating regulations or increasing enforcement.”
These could include more frequent inspections and harsher penalties for non-compliance, he explained. “Banning these markets would eliminate some of the cultural diversity of our food system,” Cohen added. “It potentially sanitizes the city, in a bad way.”
On a recent weekday morning, Awadh Radhakrishen, a parking garage attendant from Guyana, waited outside Madani Halal for his order. “You see everything here,” he told me. “You know what you’re eating.” But with supermarket chicken there was no way of telling, he said. “It might have been killed two weeks ago, two states away.”
Live markets were a fundamental facet of New York’s culinary landscape until the rise of refrigeration in the 20th century. Modern supply chains physically distanced consumers from producers, increasingly shielding them from what the American food writer Michael Pollan has called “the shame of killing”. For this and other reasons, such as urbanization and rising incomes, meat consumption increased massively. At the same time, the harms of meat production multiplied, from toxic runoff at feedlots to the slaughterhouses that have emerged as Covid-19 hotspots, predominantly for low-paid immigrants and people of color.
While that supply chain remains largely invisible, establishments like Madani Halal are wide open to public scrutiny. “It’s easier to pick on the little guy,” said Imran Uddin, the market’s owner.
A big man with a full beard, Uddin left a career in advertising 20 years ago to take over the business from his father, a Bengali immigrant who began selling poultry in 1996. Uddin’s customers come from far and wide: the Caribbean, Latin America, China, south-east Asia. There are Punjabi Sikhs who buy and slaughter their own chickens, observing religious custom, and old Italian men from a different era in the neighborhood, when it was home mostly to European immigrants. “I see fewer of them each year,” Uddin said.
Like all New York live markets, Madani Halal is licensed by the state department of agriculture and markets, subject to random inspections – of the animals and facilities – about once a month. Yet Uddin says he is in favor of even stricter regulation, conceding that some markets “cut corners”.
According to the bill before the New York senate, inspectors have issued “a litany of violations” at live animal markets, including sidewalks with blood and feces and “allowing grime to accumulate on butchering equipment”.
“Many of these markets can and should be improved,” said Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. “But calls to eliminate them serve only to invoke disgust against the small practices of small people – while leaving intact the very large systems that are threats to health, animal welfare and the environment.”
While organizations like Peta also campaign against industrial meat production, those corporations are vastly more powerful and less sensitive to activism.
“If the alternative to these markets is mass-produced meat, we’re talking about displacing risk elsewhere, not reducing it,” said Cohen.
Uddin recently drafted a petition for his customers, placing it on a clipboard at the cashier’s window. It reads: “I implore our representatives to reconsider the support for this new bill and empathize with the different cultural, ethnic and religious communities you represent.”
So far, a few hundred people have signed, he said. Other customers had declined, wary of drawing attention to their immigration status. The petition by Peta has nearly 50,000 signatures. “People fear what they don’t know,” Uddin said.
Uddin got into his truck and drove across the neighborhood with a delivery. Gousul Anwar, a Bangladeshi man who runs a dollar store in Manhattan’s Chinatown, was at home due to the pandemic; he came to the door barefoot and in a shirt that read “Don’t panic”. He’d been buying meat from Uddin for more than 15 years, he said – and before that, from Uddin’s father. So had Anwar’s cousin, a slender man with a long beard who was sitting outside his apartment across the street. He waved and greeted Uddin warmly in Bengali. Both cousins were growing potted plants – tomatoes, peppers – fertilized with manure from Madani Halal.
With only minor modifications, the scene resembled a kind of farm-to-table fantasy: the owner of a family business, delivering food and organic waste to customers he knew personally, providing a functioning, affordable alternative to the industrial meat system. Except in this case the participants weren’t virtuous middle-class shoppers, but working immigrants – “the fabric of New York”, Uddin called them afterwards.
“They’ve left behind friends and family,” he said. “They work multiple jobs – the jobs Americans don’t want. And at the end of the day they want something that reminds them of home.
“Those people are my customers,” he went on. “It disturbs me that people want to take this away.”