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Lions on the Menu: A Deadly Delicacy

Published 11/28/11
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate

(This story appears in the fall/winter 2011 issue of Born Free USA's Animal Issues Digest.)

Near our Washington, DC, office, Serbian Crown, a restaurant known for its Russian and French specialties, is offering a December menu special under Les Gibiers et Volailles (wild game and poultry): Scaloppini of Lion. Thinly sliced lion meat served with wild mushrooms. When we inquired about the source of the meat we were told it was indeed lion meat, imported from Africa, allegedly from a "farm."

There is no way for Born Free USA to confirm independently that the meat is, indeed, from a lion; is indeed imported from Africa; or is indeed from animals raised in captivity. It could be wild lion meat. It could be the byproduct of canned hunting operations where lions are kept in fenced-in pens and shot by cowardly trophy seekers. It could be from animals raised in captivity right here in the United States.

From East Coast to West Coast there has been a troubling recent proliferation of lion meat advertised on menus in upscale restaurants and burger shops. Promotional gimmick? Taste of the wild? Profitable business? For sure, downright cruel and unjustifiable.

At a time when lion populations in the wild teeter on the brink and the public is increasingly aware of the unnecessary risks of keeping dangerous big cats in captivity, there is no place for lion flesh in the nation's culinary portfolio. Born Free USA wanted to know more about the domestic lion meat trade, and undertook a thorough yearlong investigation to get to the bottom of this deadly delicacy.

What we uncovered is truly shocking - a shady business cycle that involves lion cubs bred for the captive display industry, caged lions shot at a slaughterhouse, lion meat sold to unwitting consumers without proper regulatory oversight of animal welfare of human health and safety, and a frightening lack of government accountability.

The Investigation

Born Free USA began looking into the lion meat trade in June 2010, after receiving reports of lion meat availability across the country - a pub in southern Philadelphia, PA, a grill known for its exotic selections in Sacramento, CA, and a bistro in Mesa, AZ, that advertised the meat during the World Cup hosted by South Africa.

In the Mesa case, the supply chain was traced to a butcher shop in Chicago, IL, which allegedly purchased the lion meat from an undisclosed operation that raises and slaughters lions for their skins, with the meat sold as a byproduct.

The restaurant owner claimed that the meat was inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is a bit of a problem since we discovered that the USDA does not have a role in regulating the slaughter and sale of lion meat; instead, the Food and Drug Administration and state health departments are responsible for ensuring the safety and proper labeling of exotic meats. Born Free USA actively pursued the USDA, the FDA and the Illinois Department of Agriculture in order to accurately piece together the lion meat trail.

Eickman's Processing in Seward, IL, is one of 16 facilities in the state that processes exotic meat, and the only one listed as handling lions. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) we learned the following alarming facts:

  • The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service did not inspect Eickman's concerning lion meat until March 2011 (after Born Free USA began its inquiry).
  • Neither the USDA nor the FDA was aware of the origin of the lions processed for their meat.
  • Neither agency ever sent inspectors to the lion suppliers' facilities nor, astoundingly, even asked who the original suppliers were.
  • The USDA apparently was unaware that Eickman's had been applying the USDA "triangle inspection mark" (reserved for exotic animals who are inspected via a voluntary, specially requested, fee-based inspection system) to the lion meat processed at the facility.
  • Eickman's slaughtered as many as 20 lions between Dec. 6, 2009, and Jan. 2, 2010.

But Eickman's is not alone in being implicated in this nefarious lion meat trade. FOIA documentation also revealed that Czimer's Game and Seafood in Homer Glen, IL was convicted in 2003 of selling meat from federally protected tigers and leopards. The owner admitted to purchasing the carcasses of 16 tigers, four lions and two mountain lions. They were skinned and sold as "lion meat" for a profit of more than $38,000. The precise location of where the lions were processed for meat remains a mystery.

Our Conclusions

After a year of targeted inquiries, we determined quite clearly that government agency oversight largely has fallen though the regulatory cracks. Neither the USDA nor the FDA professes to be aware of where lions slaughtered for meat originate and are, therefore, unable to guarantee how safe the meat is for human consumption.

Human health may be jeopardized because lion meat sold as a byproduct of the trade in lions raised for public display or commercialization as pets may come from lions raised without adequate attention to required antibiotic or other drug withdrawal times.

Further, there is likely deception in labeling of the meat. Once animals are skinned and slaughtered it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the species or origin of the meat. Lions are not covered under the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This law requires that animals be rendered unconscious or insensible to pain prior to slaughter. Past investigations by Born Free USA into the private ownership of exotic animals, roadside zoos and traveling shows have revealed appalling conditions under which captive exotic animals, including lions, are commonly kept. Many states have no laws governing the care and treatment of captive exotic animals.

There are no lion farms commercially breeding lions for meat, and, as such, the welfare of the individual animals cannot be confirmed. Most lions are delivered by "brokers," who likely lack appropriate licenses to possess big cats.

In the end, consumers, restaurant owners and policymakers all are equally responsible for putting a stop to this risky business by refusing to buy or sell lion meat and by pushing for and passing stronger regulations and prohibitions on the possession, slaughter and sale of lions in the United States.

Born Free USA is genuinely concerned that increased popularity and availability of lion meat in the United States could influence global trends and result in increased threats to the survival of the species in the wild … all at the very time that we are trying to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act.

Lion burgers? Lion scaloppini? No. Lions in the African savannah. Born free and living wild.

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