Tesco opened its first supermarket under its own brand name in China yesterday but animal rights activists say the British chain was guilty of cruelty to amphibians by selling live turtles and frogs at the Hymall Tesco store in Beijing.
Barbara Maas, chief executive of the Care for the Wild International (CWI) charity, said Tesco sells live turtles, frogs and fish at its joint venture stores - as do other Western supermarket chains operating in China, such as Carrefour, Metro and WalMart.
While conceding the plight of turtles and tortoises may not touch the heart of every animal lover, she said millions of the animals are mutilated or boiled alive for food and traditional medicine in China and urged Tesco to stop the barbaric practice.
"Tesco says as justification that it can't transfer Western standards on to China but why not sell live kittens or dogs in that case? Tesco is unwilling to lose the tiny fraction live turtle and frog sales add to its £33.6bn annual profit," said Ms Maas.
She said amphibians and reptiles have all the neurological components for pain perception and respond behaviourally to pain, so the animals experience terrible pain when their shell, limbs and entrails are cut away, but they are left alive for hours.
The CWI is likely to run into some serious cultural opposition on the issue. Turtles and tortoises are a regular feature in Chinese cuisine - turtle soup is a delicacy, as are dishes such as braised turtle in soy sauce or roasted turtle. About 20 million turtles are consumed in China each year and they are a luxury food which adds status to the meal. Rare turtles can cost thousands of pounds. The animals are a common sight in supermarkets, tied up and squirming in string bags alongside crabs and frogs.
To a Chinese person, eating turtle is no weirder than a Western person eating cheese. But Ms Maas insists the practice is inhumane.
"Tesco told us that it has commissioned research into the stunning of turtles, with the Chinese Institute of Science and Technology," she said. "But our research has found dozens of scientific publications that demonstrate that turtles cannot be killed humanely for food."
While Tesco claims that the turtles sold in its stores are farmed, CWI says conditions on the farms can be horrendous and turtle farming can damage wild populations by spreading disease and also because farming is likely to involve the collection of wild turtles.
Tesco is Europe's top retailer and the third largest retailer in the world. It bought a 50 per cent stake in Hymall, a leading grocery brand under the Taiwan-based Ting Hsin International Group, in 2004, and increased its stake to 90 per cent last December.
The company has 45 Hymall stores in China, all of which will change their signs to Hymall Tesco.
Hymall Tesco will compete with other major supermarket chains, including France's Carrefour, the Germany-based retailer Metro and the US giant Wal-Mart as well as the local retailer Jingkelong.