Authorities have been trying to crack down on the smuggling of meat from certain animals for years. Some people see the meat from animals such as bats, monkeys, and rodents as a food delicacy, but the illegal importation of such uninspected foods is cause for concern for public health officials and food regulatory agencies.
According to preliminary findings, researchers recently testing bushmeat smuggled into the U.S. have founds strains of a virus in the same family as human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
Bushmeat is the meat of terrestrial wild animals. It has entered the U.S. in shipping containers and through the mail.
The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined forces in 2008 to test illegally imported meat entering the New York City area due to concerns that this meat from West Africa may carry dangerous diseases such as monkey pox, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and retroviruses such as HIV.
During testing, 2 strains of simian foamy virus were detected in bushmeat. This virus is commonly found in nonhuman primates.
Simian foamy virus can infect humans but hasn’t been conclusively linked to known diseases. According to scientists, the related simian immunodeficiency virus, which has been found in bushmeat outside of the country, is responsible for the first cases of HIV.
Smugglers often resort to packing smoked monkey or cane rat in their personal suitcases. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has seized a fraction of the bushmeat coming into the New York City area. Hundreds of samples from at least 14 species have been sent for testing.
“We get these big boxes of meat, sometimes you see primate heads or hands in there,” said Kristine Smith, a wildlife veterinarian who is conducting the study for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Customs and Boarder Protection keep statistics on illegal meat entering the country but do not break it down into a bushmeat category.
“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that the U.S., in terms of volume, is a large market based on our seizures,” said Sandra Cleva, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement. “From a health perspective, it’s always a concern.”
According to Richard Ruggiero, who works on international bushmeat issues for the Fish and Wildlife Service, the meat is highly valued in some immigrant communities, specifically among West Africans.
It is like “any other illegal commodity,” Ruggiero said. “It’s a clandestine industry. They sell it in clandestine networks.” He added that many of the smuggled meats are from endangered species.
“In Africa today, many wildlife populations are being eaten to extinction. The greatest impact to wildlife populations in Africa is the bushmeat trade.”
Today, rodents and bats are being consumed because many of the larger species have already been killed off.
“In former times, people would hunt around their village and consume most of the bushmeat or sell it to their neighbors. In today’s world, we have transportation in and out of previously impenetrable forests.”
Fines for importing bushmeat are low and there have been few prosecutions for selling it. In December, Mamie Manneh, a Liberian immigrant who lives on Staten Island, was sentenced to probation by a New York federal court for smuggling and selling monkey meat.
The danger to Americans is the possibility of a disease entering through smuggled animals and meat such as a monkey pox outbreak in 2003 that the CDC traced to African rodents.
Although cooking meat kills many foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, some diseases carried by animals are not killed in the cooking process. Scientists from the CDC said there are many cases of diseases transmitted through handling meat.
“We do know that looking at products at the airports there is no quality control on bushmeat,” said Nina Marano, a scientist at the CDC.
“People will claim it’s smoked or it’s dried but we have pulled samples out of packages with meat on the bone, juice in the bag, still bloody.”