1. Archive

New York cracks down on mysterious meats

A food safety inspector noticed an interesting special posted in the front window of a market in Queens: 12 beefy armadillos.

In Brooklyn, inspectors found 15 pounds of iguana meat at a West Indian market and 200 pounds of cow lungs for sale at another store. A West African grocery in Manhattan sold smoked rodent meat from a refrigerated display case.

All of it was headed for the dinner table. All of it was also illegal.

Authorities say the discoveries are part of a larger trend in which markets across New York are buying meat and other foods from unregulated sources and selling them to an immigrant population accustomed to more exotic fare. State regulators have stepped up enforcement, confiscating 65 percent more food - 1.6-million pounds - through September than they did in all of 2005.

In this ethnically diverse city, everything from turtles and fish paste to frogs and duck feet make their way onto people's plates.

"At one time or another, we've probably seen about everything," said Joseph Corby, director of the state's Division of Food Safety and Inspection.

Inspectors in Corby's agency, which is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent illicit food from reaching store shelves, are now targeting warehouses that receive imported products in addition to checking out retailers.

Food taken by inspectors lacked proper labeling or didn't come from a government-licensed or inspected source. Other food was destroyed because of the way it was processed or prepared, like chicken smoked in the home and placed on sale. Such food can spread nasty bacteria like salmonella or botulinum.

Bush meat, or anything killed in the wild, is typically illegal. Eating endangered or threatened species like gorilla and chimpanzee - whose meat is occasionally found in New York - is against the law.

But turtles, frogs, iguana and armadillos can be sold if the meat comes from a licensed and inspected facility. "We have yet to find too many of these places," Corby said.

In a city filled with clusters of people hailing from all over the world, these rules can get lost in translation. Sanitary inspection reports dating back to 2001 reveal a widespread appetite for potentially dangerous food.

On a bustling stretch of Manhattan's Chinatown, Bor Kee Food Market has been caught selling unidentified red meat and mysterious fish paste, which is used in Asian recipes. Down the street at Dahing Seafood Market, inspectors have found frogs being sold from an unapproved source. Next door, authorities spotted crates of turtles and a large tub of bullfrogs without proper invoices.

Inside Kam Lun Food Products in Queens, inspectors discovered questionable turtles and frogs and a clue: "Label on animal boxes states China Air Cargo," the inspector wrote in his report.

"That's a no-no because there is absolutely no monitoring of the standards in these places," said Dr. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter, and director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center. "It's subject to the vagaries of whoever is processing the food. Who's watching?"

At the West African Grocery - where "smoked rodent" was found - the owner failed to explain why he was selling the meat, saying he couldn't speak English.

But he could apparently read the sanitary inspection report and the word "rodent." "I don't know what that is," the owner said. "I don't sell that here."

Sung Soo Kim, president of Korean American Small Business Service Center of New York, says it's hard to change centuries-old eating habits. He runs a state-approved food safety education program and has delivered seminars to the Korean community about food laws.

Corby says education is key - along with fines - in getting owners to pass inspections and stop buying and selling illegal food.

"Immigrants coming from the Third World would not be schooled in the issues of cross contamination and would not intuitively know hygiene standards," said Pascal James Imperato, a former city health commissioner who spent six years in Africa with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "They don't know how simple contamination can result in a widespread epidemic."

If all else fails, Corby will get a court injunction and shutter stores, something the state did 66 times in 2005 and 72 times through September of this year.

"We either clean them up or close them down," he said. "There is a high standard that is applied. We'd rather have it too high than too low."

Ruiad Nasher, who emigrated from Bangladesh in 1995, manages the Master Mini Market in Brooklyn and was caught selling more than 50 pounds of chicken from an unapproved source this year. Nasher bought the chickens from a poultry market in Brooklyn and said he didn't know he was violating state law.

"In Bangladesh, you didn't have all these rules," he said.

Nasher said he now buys only USDA-approved chicken, even shrugging off discounted offers from the Brooklyn chicken purveyor.

"Just for chicken, I don't want to lose my business," he said.