Customs officials at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport said Wednesday that they confiscated potentially deadly bushmeat numerous times in late December from travelers arriving from Liberia, federal authorities said Wednesday.
A statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the seizures are part of a “trend that could have deadly effects and lead to another outbreak of disease” such as Ebola.
Bushmeat refers to raw and minimally processed meat that comes from wild animals in certain regions of the world including Africa and may pose a risk of communicable disease.
It’s made from bats, nonhuman primates, cane rats (grasscutters), antelope and other wildlife. It is often smoked, dried, or salted. But these are not procedures that render the meat noninfectious, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CBP agriculture specialists at the airport reported American citizens and documented permanent residents arriving from Liberia who were acknowledging only fish on their written and verbal declarations. Even when passengers were asked directly about bushmeat, they declared “fish,” according to the agency.
However, inspections turned up more than fish wrapped in layers of newspaper, plastic, foil, and tape. During the last week of December, officers seized in seven instances more than 104 pounds of bushmeat, the CBP said. The confiscations ranged in size from 3 1⁄2 to 45 pounds.
“The intermingling of fish and bushmeat in the same package is common,” said Chief Agriculture Specialist Lauren Lewis.
Augustine Moore, the CBP’s area port director for Minnesota, said, “Just last week, our agriculture specialists stopped a passenger returning from Liberia” and when asked whether he had any bushmeat, the man said he had “parts of a monkey. Turned out it was two primate arms and primate rib material.”
Adding to the concern over bushmeat slipping through customs is that the travelers who had the forbidden food confiscated were heading to numerous destinations beyond the Twin Cities, including the Dakotas, Iowa and northwestern Minnesota, where they could trigger multiple outbreaks, said CBP spokesman Steve Bansbach.
While there can be a $250,000 fine for bringing bushmeat into the United States, Bansbach said no arrests or criminal proceedings have been started in connection with the recent seizures.
“They were informed,” he said. “The biggest thing we want to do is educate the public. The meat was seized and destroyed, and we sent them on their way with the message not to do this the next time.”
A community leader among the roughly 46,000 Liberians in Minnesota said that people in the west African nation, rather than calling it bushmeat, refer to it as “dry meat” that is similar to beef jerky after it’s been processed.
“It’s considered a delicacy,” said Kamaty Diahn, executive director, of the Twin Cities-based Organization of Liberians in Minnesota.
“I would not encourage anyone to bring [the banned meat] from overseas,” Diahn said, adding that he’d like to see federal authorities “take a good step [and] network with us to educate” his community about what foods are not allowed in the United States.
Bansbach said the agency’s agriculture specialists rely on their training “for what to look for. … They have to open the package, sift through it and see what is in there.”
Once the potentially harmful bushmeat is found, “it is steam sterilized and destroyed” in order to not mistakenly release contaminants, he said.
Bushmeat could be infected with germs that can cause sickness in people, including Ebola, a rare and deadly disease that is spread through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who is sick or who has died from the virus.
Generally, Ebola is not spread by food. However, in Africa, human infections have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing of meat from infected animals.
As the United States and the rest of the world struggle through a second year of widespread illness and death from COVID-19, Bansbach said that bushmeat “luckily, is not going to be a pandemic, but it could be an outbreak.”