Testing of meats confiscated at American airports revealed the presence of several pathogens that could pose a risk to human health, including retroviruses and herpesviruses. Most of the pathogens were isolated from the remains of various primate species, some of them from endangered monkeys. Multiple viruses were detected within some samples.
The study's authors say better surveillance measures are needed to ensure this smuggled meat does not result in the emergence of new disease outbreaks in humans. Scientists estimate that 75% of emerging infectious diseases affecting people have come from contact with wildlife. Two of the most notorious are AIDS (thought to have originated in primates) and SARS (from Asian palm civets). Although some of this is the result of animal bites, the handling and consumption of infected meats is considered a significant route of transmission.
Scientists in the PLoS One study examined animal remains passing through five international airports, including John F. Kennedy in New York. The smuggled raw, smoked and dried meats, found in postal packages and suitcases, were tested first to make a species identification. The testing revealed the flesh came from several primates, including baboons and chimpanzees, but also rodents such as large cane rats (yum!).
According to the study, the United States is one of the world's largest consumers of imported wildlife and wildlife products. An average of over 55 million pounds of non-live wildlife enters the United States each year.
The meat was then tested for a number of viruses known to be capable of infecting humans. Among the pathogens identified were a zoonotic retrovirus, simian foamy viruses and several nonhuman primate herpesviruses. According to the BBC, "No one really knows the scale of the illegal trade in wildlife meat, but a 2010 study estimated that five tons of the material per week was being smuggled in personal baggage through Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France." Some say it is evidence that an intercontinental luxury meat market may be developing.
One of the study's authors, Ian Lipkin of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, called bushmeat a "Trojan horse that threatens humankind."