Obama in hot water over shark fin soup
San Francisco - It was the sort of visit made for cameras, but President Barack Obama's stop at a Chinese restaurant came under scrutiny on Friday after the menu showed that it served shark fin.
Obama, in San Francisco for fund-raisers, on Thursday surprised and delighted lunch-time diners with a surprise stop at a restaurant in Chinatown. He posed for pictures and paid in cash for two bags of take-out food.
But a look at the menu of the restaurant, Great Eastern, showed that it offered soup from shark fin, a Chinese delicacy that environmentalists say is pushing the ancient fish to the point of extinction.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that no one on the staff had been aware of the issue until seeing media reports on Friday and that Obama had not ordered shark.
"The president enjoyed his visit to Chinatown, and, as you know, ordered a lot of dim sum takeout. No soup," Carney told reporters on Air Force One.
Environmentalists say that tens of millions of sharks are killed each year as fishermen slice off their fins for dinner tables, leaving them to die in the water. Sharks have few offspring, compounding risks to their survival.
The United States banned finning in its waters in 2000. Obama in January 2011 signed the Shark Conservation Act that toughened regulations by banning imports of fins that are not attached to corresponding shark carcasses.
While the federal law did not ban shark fins themselves, California Governor Jerry Brown in October signed a bill that barred the sale, trade and possession of shark fins.
However, restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere in California can still sell existing stocks of shark fin until July 2013.
Rebecca Regnery, deputy director of wildlife for Humane Society International, said that shark fin was still on offer at a majority of large Chinese restaurants in cities with large Asian populations.
She said that her group had special cards which it encouraged diners to fill out and send to restaurants if they find shark fin.
"Usually the restaurants say we're happy not to serve it, but then everyone is going to go to our competitor and because of demand we're obligated to serve it," she said.
"If it's the opposite, and people go to a competitor that does not serve shark fin, then it starts making economic sense to take it off the menu," she said.