When a food safety inspector walked into a market in the borough of Queens, he noticed the store had an interesting special posted on its front window: 12 beefy armadillos.
In Brooklyn, inspectors found 6.7kg of iguana meat at a West Indian market and 90kg of cow lungs for sale at another market.
At a West African grocery in Manhattan, the store was selling smoked rodent meat from a refrigerated display case.
All was headed for the dinner table. All was illegal. Such food can spread nasty bacteria like salmonella or botulism.
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 increased enforcement measures, confiscating 65 percent more food through September than they did in all of last year.
The seizures also focus on the eating habits of this ethnically diverse city, where 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.
In an attempt to stop the activity, Corby's agency has increased efforts, working with the Food and Drug Administration, to prevent the illicit food from reaching store shelves.
Corby said his inspectors are also targeting warehouses that receive imported products -- Russian, Asian and African -- from where the food is distributed.
So far, it appears the campaign has been effective. In the first nine months of the year, inspectors across the state seized 720,000kg of food, destroying about 81 percent. Last year, the state seized 439,234kg.
Food taken by Corby's inspectors lacked proper labeling or did not 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.
"Immigrants coming from the Third World would not be schooled in the issues of cross contamination and would not intuitively know hygiene standards," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, a former city health commissioner who spent six years in Africa with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"They don't know how simple contamination can result in a widespread epidemic," he added.
The law varies from animal to animal.
Bush meat, or anything killed in the wild, is typically illegal, Corby said. Eating endangered or threatened species like as gorilla and chimpanzee -- whose meat is occasionally found in New York -- is against the law.
But turtles, frogs, iguana and armadillos can be eaten under one condition: The meat must come from a licensed and inspected facility.
"We have yet to find too many of these places," Corby said.
State sanitary inspection reports dating back to 2001 reveal a widespread appetite for potentially dangerous food.
In Manhattan's Chinatown, Bor Kee Food Market has been caught selling unidentified red meat. Down the street at Dahing Seafood Market, inspectors have found frogs being sold from an unapproved source.
"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?" he said.
In a city filled with people from all over the world, the law can get lost in translation.
At the West African Grocery -- where "smoked rodent" was found -- the owner failed to explain why he was selling the mysterious meat, saying he could not speak English.
At another market in Brooklyn called Chang Xiang Trading, the manager shrugged her shoulders when confronted with reports showing the store has sold illegal pork, chicken and ducks. Her English was not good, she said.
Sung Soo-kim, president of Korean American Small Business Service Center of New York, says it is hard to change centuries-old eating habits.
Kim runs a state-approved food safety education program and has delivered seminars to the Korean community about food laws.
Corby says that one way to get businesses to comply with the program is ordering them to take a state-approved food inspection course.
If all else fails, Corby will get a court injunction and close stores, something the state did 66 times last year and 72 times through September 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."
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