Britain’s growing taste for exotic meats such as llama, cane rat (“succulent and sweet”), scaly anteater and monkey poses a serious health risk to consumers because many are illegally imported, can be riddled with disease and are not subject to food regulations, the country’s head of food safety inspections has warned.
Rising demand among ethnic minorities for dishes from their homeland, together with Britons’ increasingly adventurous attitude to food, has pushed up demand for traditionally unorthodox ingredients, experts say.
This is putting further pressure on Britain’s food chain, which has already been exposed as highly susceptible to fraud following the recent horse meat scandal in which horse was found to have been widely substituted for beef.
“Animals that were not previously being thought of as food animals are increasingly going into the food chain,” said Andrew Rhodes, head of operations at the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
“People’s tastes are changing and so are the animals they eat. A lot of people are trying different things and there has been an increase in the number of businesses being approved to slaughter various animals,” he said.
“Llamas are starting to pop up and turn into kebabs and burgers, and we are seeing a lot of other things turn up in the food chain that we need to start worrying about.”
Although still relatively rare, llama is increasingly popular, especially among Britain’s gurkha communities, which regard it as a premium meat. It has not so far been found to have been substituted for beef or any other ingredient in the UK. Unlike with many exotic meats, it is legal to eat llama in this country, provided it is labelled as such, killed by an approved slaughterhouse and passes the necessary health inspections.
However, there is evidence that the scale of bush meats imported illegally is growing rapidly, with produce sold over the internet and in local markets, especially in and around London.
“We are detecting more bush meat. People are bringing it in illegally to sell within certain communities. This is dangerous because it has not been prepared or inspected for illness and won’t have been refrigerated during the journey,” said Mr Rhodes.
Most of the bush meats come from Central and West African countries such as Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Ghana, and potentially expose handlers and consumers to deadly diseases.
Bush meats include apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as crocodiles, small antelope and scaly anteaters. Experts say ape meats pose particular risks, with the HIV virus widely believed to have started in chimpanzees, while apes generally host diseases, such as ebola, anthrax and yellow fever.
Mr Rhodes is also concerned about the dangers of plants. He is worried that paan – legally imported from Bangladesh and India and chewed neat as a palate cleanser or mixed with tobacco or spices as a stimulant – could cause salmonella. “As people start to broaden their tastes, we are starting to see some issues around this,” he said, adding that Britain is working with other European governments to try to control paan imports.
An FSA spokesman said: “We are reminding local authorities to be vigilant. However, a lot of the illegal meat trade goes on out of the sight of enforcement officers, so it can be difficult to tackle without specific intelligence.”
Mr Rhodes warned in a conference speech this month that food is increasingly being used to traffic drugs, including inside live animals, with the drugs removed at the point of slaughter Environmental Health News reported.
Some of the favourites:
Llama: This course but slightly-sweet meat is favoured by Britain’s gurkha communities and is increasingly being (legally) found in burgers and kebabs.
Cane rat: Also known as “grass cutters”, they are typically imported from Ghana, where they are considered a delicacy.
Antelope: This finely-grained animal tastes similar to venison and has one third of the calories of beef.
Crocodile: A favourite ingredient on the classic Namibian Cashew Nut Satay mixed bushmeat skewer. Serve with satay of peanut butter, cashew nuts, coconut, palm sugar and chillies