Bushmeat: Dinner Or Deadly Disease

Bush Meat, Jim Acosta, Evening News

Despite the U.S.'s slumping economy, there is one unusual market that has continued to grow — the sale of exotic, and illegal imported meats.

The meat fetches a high price from epicureans with adventurous palates, but the trade is risky.

Even if the cops don't catch you, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Acosta, there's plenty of reason to worry that consumers might catch something from the meat.

The African rodent CBS News was able to buy at an exotic foods store in New York is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.

In just 30 minutes it can travel from the airport to store shelves, where federal authorities fear it could potentially carry a deadly disease.

Wild animals that are killed by poachers in African and Asian jungles have long been sold in foreign markets as so-called "bushmeat."

But lately, Fish and Wildlife agents have caught "bushmeat" smugglers sneaking it into the U.S. in their suitcases.

The smugglers operate in the same way as drug dealers, coming through U.S. customs without declaring the meat.

"They try to hide it. There's a lot of passengers coming in. We can't check every piece of luggage nor customs or the other agencies, and a lot just comes through," says Thomas Healy, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Enforcement.

When agents get lucky and make a seizure, they take no chances. At a recent bust at New York City's JFK airport, agency officials wore biohazard suits to sort through a smuggled shipment of bats, rodents and endangered primates.

"No one really knows what diseases are out there and what this meat carries," Healy says.

Bushmeat smugglers have not only exposed a weakness in airport security, they have also revealed a gaping hole in the nation's defenses against deadly viruses, reports CBS' Acosta.

"When you move animals and their products to far distances, the United States, we have no natural immunity," says Dr. Robert Cook, a wildlife veterinarian with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Cook mentioned the global health threat posed by SARS as an example. Some scientists, he says, believe that virus spread from animals to humans after people in China consumed diseased wildlife.

"There is the possibility that someone could purchase bushmeat from a country where there is an infectious disease emerging out of the forest, purchase it in the United States and get sick and spread that disease," Cook says.

CBS' Acosta caught his successful bushmeat purchase on hidden camera. The store clerk said the meat arrived irregularly, depending on whether airport security confiscated the latest shipments.

There are no reports yet of illnesses in the U.S. associated with bushmeat but the exotic food grows more popular every day, and health experts fear one person's dinner could be an outbreak waiting to happen.