The U.S. is a major consumer of illegally imported African “bushmeat” and other wildlife products – and of the perilous microbial zoo that frequently accompanies those products.

That’s the bottom line of a study published this week in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Bushmeat describes meat parts from exotic African wildlife species, including baboons and chimpanzees, rats and other rodent species – strange products that have found mostly-illegal markets across the U.S.

Laboratory analysis of samples confiscated at New York’s JFK Airport and other U.S. airports showed that many of those exotic wildlife products carry equally exotic microbes, including zoonotic retrovirus, simian foamy viruses and several nonhuman primate herpesviruses.

“Exotic wildlife; pets and bushmeat are Trojan horses that threaten humankind at sites where they are collected in the developing world as well as the U.S.,” said Ian Lipkin, of Columbia University’s School of Public Health, which participated in the study.

Other participants included the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , EcoHealth Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

A previous EcoHealth study concluded that 1.5 billion live wild animals, from snakes and lizards to baboons and chimpanzees, were imported to the U.S. over the six-year period from 2000-2006. Most of them were headed for the exotic pet market.

In addition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife says that 55  million pounds of bushmeat and other wildlife products flow into the U.S. each year – most of it arriving at New York City, Miami or Los Angeles.

The CDC conducted a pilot study designed to get a sense of the risks that travel with those illegal imports. The study was based on a relatively small sampling of confiscated products, which included “parts originating from nonhuman primate and rodent species, including baboon, chimpanzee, mangabey, guenon, green monkey, cane rat and rat.”

Simian foamy virus, which is closely related to Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which can lead to AIDS, was present in 3 of 10 baboon samples.

“These results are the first demonstration that illegal bushmeat importation into the U.S. could act as a conduit for pathogen spread,” the researchers reported.

They stressed that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases originate with wildlife. One example was the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, which began in southwest China and eventually spread to 29 other  countries, sickening more than 8,000 people and killing 774. Most of the early cases of infection were among restaurant workers who bought and butchered masked palm civets traded in the markets of Guangdong.

Illegal wildlife imports come from China, the Phillippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, Nigeria and many other countries, the study says. Much of the bushmeat smuggled from Africa passes through Europe.

A separate study estimated that 273 tons of bushmeat is coming into France via Air France carriers alone.

In addition to direct health risks to consumers, wildlife imports pose a risk to domestic agriculrure, wildlife and livestock, the authors conclude.

However, the authors also cautioned that the pilot study was limited in scope and was “not intended to be a comprehensive review of presence or to measure prevalence of all pathogens imported in wildlife products.”

For example, the study did not even examine major wildlife groups such as birds and reptiles.

Still, the findings suggest a need for “broader surveillance” at U.S. ports of entry, the authors wrote.