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The Debate Over Eating Exotic Meat

Humans like the excitement of uncharted territory. Perhaps this explains the surge in our appetite for exotic meat. Whether it's selling lion burgers in Arizona, dipping tiger genitalia in soy sauce to improve fertility in China, or importing 24 tons of pangolin (a rare spiny anteater) to Vietnam from Indonesia for profit, people around the world are getting a thrill from hunting, selling, and eating exotic meat. But for many others, it's an irresponsible and even barbaric practice.

The Appeal of Cooking Exotic Meat

There have always been gourmands for whom taste trumps ethics. For them, the technique of force feeding birds to fatten their livers to make foie gras recipes is just a necessary culinary arts technique, not an inhumane act. Others will eat the flesh of unusual animals, but only if it's farmed, like buffalo, elk, wild boar, ostrich, and emu. The appeal of exotic meats lies not only in their novelty but also their nutrition and because they're often raised free-range on organic feed without antibiotics or hormones.

Cameron Selogie of Arizona, planned to serve lion burgers at his restaurant Il Vinaio, to celebrate the South African World Cup Soccer Tournament. He didn't question his source until an animal rights activist told the local paper. It turns out the meat wasn't from a free-range, United States Department of Agriculture-inspected lion farm, but rather a middleman who got it from a butcher shop. Selogie had no interest in tracking the meat further.

Since lions aren't an endangered species (merely a "threatened" one), it's legal to sell their meat in the US. "I do feel bad that people are so concerned about this... [T]his is the king of the jungle and that's the only reason they can give me for their concern," Selogie said, in an interview on CNNMoney.com. "We're not doing anything to endanger the species."

Caution for Chefs Serving Exotic Meat

But the fact that not everyone cares to know where their exotic meat comes from worries public health officials, given the suspected cause of diseases like AIDS and SARS (humans handling and consuming wild animals). Millions of wild animals and thousands of pounds of bush meat are illegally smuggled (bypassing health and customs inspections) into the U.S. every year.

Animal activists are very concerned about the way these animals are treated before they're consumed and worry that many species are being hunted into extinction in places like Vietnam, where the newly rich have developed a taste for "forest food" in a culture where virtually everything is considered edible. Their willingness to pay high prices for the meat of threatened animals like the rhino, civet, and white-handed gibbon is creating a profitable illegal trade. And as for the hippopotamus meat served at the Beijing Zoo restaurant? Activists condemn the mixed message sent to patrons, whom they believe should protect wild animals, not eat them.

A Vermont restaurant owner, Matt Blau, puts mainly free-range and local meats on his pizza and pasta based menu. When asked whether he would ever offer exotic meat at his restaurant and bar Fireworks, he said only if it were farmed, like ostrich or buffalo, two uncommon meats he eats at home for their taste and health benefits. But something like lion? "No way, that's just not right."

Whether you agree with eating exotic meat or not, it's an undeniably interesting and controversial culinary trend that's growing wildly in every corner of the world.

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