July 9, 2010 -- It was never easy being green. Now add to habitat destruction and climate change the newest danger facing frogs: the fork.
Across the country and around the world, frog legs are reportedly on the rise as a popular dish, but not everyone is a fan.
"We sell the hell out of them," said Dan Marciano, owner of The Arches in Newport Beach, CA, which has served served frog legs sautéed in garlic butter sauce as an appetizer and entrée since the 1940's. Marciano said Hollywood stars and locals alike love the French recipe.
At Brasserie Jo in Chicago, frog legs garlic provençale is accompanied by watercress coulis. And at Uncle Julio's Rio Grande, a Tex-Mex themed chain with restaurants nationwide, frog legs are marinated, grilled, and served with rice, frijoles, and pico de gallo as one of "Uncle Julio's favorites."
According to Save the Frogs!, described as America's first and only public charity dedicated to the protection of amphibians, Americans eat 20 percent of the world's frog legs, and soon the U.S. is likely to overtake France and Belgium as the world's largest consumer of frog legs.
But their growing popularity amidst increased extinction of frogs and their cold-blooded brethren has many environmentalists and scientists concerned. Amphibians are "the most imperiled animal group" in the entire animal kingdom, according to Noah Greenwald, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group for endangered plant and animal species. About one third of all amphibians are at risk of extinction.
European consumption totaled about 120 million frogs each year during the 1990's. In France, where frog legs are a traditional dish, overharvesting led the government to ban farming and capturing frogs in 1980. Much to the chagrin of purist Gallic gastronomes, the law is strictly enforced and a guilty verdict on poaching charges was returned as recently as 2007.
But in the U.S., there is little regulation of frog legs as a dish even though some say it is an ecological danger.
"It has been estimated that globally 100 million frogs are taken out of the wild for use as food each year," said Save the Frogs! founder and executive director Dr. Kerry Kriger. Based on an analysis of UN trade data, that number may actually be as high as 1 billion, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Growing Taste for Frog Legs Imperils Species
Kriger cites an even bigger problem among farm-raised frogs: disease. "They spread chytrid fungus, and they escape their farms and eat native wildlife" in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and 12 other countries, he said. Chytrid fungus has been blamed for the extinction of over 100 different amphibian species worldwide.
Sixty-two percent of farm-raised bullfrogs in shops in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco were carriers of the chytrid fungus, according to a recent study posted on the Save the Frogs! website. "These three cities alone have been importing over five million amphibians per year," the website notes.
To further raise awareness of the ecological danger, Kriger's group last April helped organize the second international Save the Frogs Day.
Last weekend, Save the Frogs! organized a series of protests at Uncle Julio's Rio Grande restaurants across the U.S. after getting no response from a barrage of more than 800 protest letters mailed to the chain's Texas headquarters.
Uncle Julio's did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment on the frog legs controversy, referring instead to a corporate statement that states in part: "We listen to our customers and offer the menu items that they want which results in a menu full of options for all tastes and preferences. Like many restaurants, Uncle Julio's serves dairy products, vegetables, fruits, seafood, beef, chicken and other popular foods that are common to the Mexican and American palates."
All that activism may be working elsewhere. This past April, the chic San Francisco restaurant Gary Danko removed frog legs from its menu, "assisting worldwide amphibian conservation efforts," according to a press release issued by Save the Frogs! Many of the Los Angeles-area restaurants the group had listed as frog leg vendors had removed the dish from their menus when ABC News checked online.
Not everyone is on board, however. The Arches has no plans to get rid of the popular dish. "If they stop selling, then I'll stop ordering them," Marciano said. He added, "You should eat whatever the hell you want."