Could the meat in your plate pose a health risk for you? If the animal where it came from was properly raised and handled, and the meat went through a sanitary inspection before reaching your plate, there is little chance it can cause you a health problem. But, what could happen if a sanitary authority has not inspected it?

Your meat indeed could be a high risk for your health. In some cases this can be a public concern, because meat can be a source of pathogens that could cause a disease outbreak. In fact, it has been documented that close interaction among wildlife, domestic animals, and humans could provide the perfect environment for pathogen exchange.[1] Even more alarmingly, almost 75% of diseases that have recently emerged in humans have their origin in animals, a process technically known as zoonosis.[2] Hunting and butchering of wild animals has been increasingly recognized as a source of disease emergence. The most common zoonotic pathogens are RNA viruses, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus,[3] and the H5N1 influenza virus, that causes flu.[4] Wildlife products that have not been inspected for sanitary conditions could thus be a serious threat to public health.

The United States is one of the world’s largest importers of wildlife and wildlife products.[5] Every year approximately 120 million live wild animals and 25,000 tons of wildlife products are imported into the US. New York City is the busiest port of entry into the US, and in combination with the Los Angeles and Miami international airports, accounts for more than 50% of all wildlife imports. One of the main concerns with importation of wild animals and wildlife products is the introduction of pathogens that are associated with them. Examples of diseases introduced to the US by wildlife include amphibian chytridiomycosis, exotic Newcastle’s disease, and monkey pox.

In a study published this month in PLoS ONE, a large collaborative team composed by researchers from EcoHealth Alliance, Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Geological Survey, and the Wildlife Conservation Society tested samples from approximately 44 different meat products confiscated at five US international airports, the majority coming from JFK Airport.[6] Using DNA barcoding they identified that the bushmeat (term used to define product obtained from hunting and butchering of wild animals) came from chimpanzees, mangabeys, and green monkeys, among other animals. Both simian foamy viruses (SFV) and herpes viruses were detected in the wildlife products. Both type of viruses have been associated with infections and diseases in humans, such as malignant catarrhal fever or herpes B virus.[7] This is yet another study highlighting the manifold applications of DNA barcoding.

This PLoS ONE study6 was the first to conduct surveillance for zoonotic viruses in bushmeat products illegally imported into the US and establishes a precedent of the threat these products could represent for our public health.

[1] Karesh, W.B., et al. (2005). Wildlife trade and global disease emergence. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 11, No. 7: 1000-1002.

[2] Cleaveland, S., et al. (2007). Overview of pathogen emergence: Which pathogens emerge, when, and why. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology, Vol. 35: 85-111.

[3] Xu, R.H., et al. (2004). Epidemiologic clues to SARS origin in China. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 10, No. 6: 1030-1037.

[4] Li, K.S., et al. (2004). Genesis of a highly pathogenic and potentially pandemic H5N1 influenza virus in eastern Asia. Nature, Vol. 430, No. 6996: 209–213.

[5] US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit. US wildlife trade: An overview for 1997-2003. Available at:

[6] Smith, K.M., et al. (2012). Zoonotic viruses associated with illegal imported wildlife products. PLoS ONE, Vol. 7, Issue 1.

[7] Schrenzel, M.D. (2008). New host for equine herpesvirus 9. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 14, No. 10: 1616-1619.