Frog legs: more than just a culinary curiosity

Frog legs are a culinary tradition in many cultures—featured in French and Cantonese cuisine, among others—and have been showing up in American cuisine as well, often as a culinary curiosity. In a recent article in the Washington Post, for example, frog legs were presented as a delicacy that could become more popular with American consumers if presented in a new way:

“[In a local restaurant] last spring, frogs’ legs were served on the bone, still looking like, well, Kermit’s appendages. Reception was lukewarm. Then, the chef began using legs as just a component of the dish, roasting the boneless meat with vegetables. It sold more often, and the menu switch became permanent.”

While frog legs continue to be a less popular dish in the United States, compared with France and Indonesia, it is sometimes viewed as an adventurous food item or, in the case of the Washington Post Express article, “delicacies that were once cringe-worthy.” According to a study published in the October issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, there are good reasons for limiting the trade of frog legs to the U.S.

More than 5 million frogs are imported to the U.S. annually, said the study, mainly from Taiwan, Brazil, Ecuador and China. While overharvesting of frogs is a biodiversity concern—a kilogram of export-quality frog legs requires 10 to 40 individual animals, leading to the death of approximately 100 to 400 million frogs per year for food—Brian Gratwicke from Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Center for Species Survival, and co-authors suggest there are other more pressing concerns with the international frog leg trade. That is, 62 percent of the 5 million frogs imported to the U.S. were carriers of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), and 8.5 percent carried Ranavirus.

Currently, “no legal mechanism exists in the U.S. that would mandate the rejection of imports even of known Bd-infected specimens,” write the authors. The danger, then, is that importing unfrozen, unskinned, and especially live, frogs could lead to the spread of deadly pathogens in native frog populations. “The question therefore arises,” say Gratwicke and colleagues, “are the financial benefits and the potential ecological damage of shipping 10,000 tons of frog legs around the world each year worth the ecological risks for limited (albeit widespread) consumer base?” And specific to the U.S., is the risk of pathogen spread worth encouraging culinary curiosity of this particular delicacy?

Photo Credit: Roadsidepictures

Gratwicke, B., Evans, M., Jenkins, P., Kusrini, M., Moore, R., Sevin, J., & Wildt, D. (2010). Is the international frog legs trade a potential vector for deadly amphibian pathogens? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (8), 438-442 DOI: 10.1890/090111

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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