At the Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, US Custom and Border Protection officials seized two picnic baskets packed with some very precious cargo: a clutch of live giant African snails from Lagos, Nigeria, weighing more than 35 pounds.
These particular molluscs were apparently meant for someone's dinner plate in San Dimas, but the CBP opted to incinerate the 67 animals—the largest cache the agency has ever encountered—because they're classified as an invasive species in the US.
It's true that the snails, which can live up to ten years and grow 20 centimeters long, are particularly voracious. The US Department of Agriculture hates these guys. Introduced to the US in 1966, the fist-sized snails became a massive pest in Florida, where an initial family of three snails turned into a plague of 18,000. (They're legal in the UK, but for that same reason it's illegal to release them into the wild.) The USDA claims that they can consume more than 500 varieties of plants and, failing that, they'll eat the stucco off of houses.
So why aren't we eating them instead?
Snaileries have several distinct advantages over other livestock operations because snails are silent, prolific, and cheap.
That's what people in West Africa have been doing for years. In Nigeria, they're often called "Congo meat" and command high prices as a delicacy. Some are collected in the wild, though the population has reportedly declined in recent years thanks to deforestation, pesticide use, and over-harvesting. Others are farmed in snaileries, which have several distinct advantages over other livestock operations. Snails are silent, prolific, and cheap, requiring far less in the way of start-up costs than cows or pigs. Nigerian snail farmers typically feed their flocks vegetables, plant leaves, and leftovers, which the snails turn into tasty edible protein.
But these aren't just any escargots. They're tougher and meatier than their European cousins, calling for more aggressive preparations. First, they're blanched and extracted from their shells with a rod or a hammer. Then they're washed with either alum or lime juice to remove their mucus, and add a bit of flavor. (Apparently, snails raised on a diet of papaya leaves also taste better.) Then they're sliced, fried until crunchy, and served as a bar snack on a toothpick, or stewed with peppers and eaten with rice.
In Africa, the snails are believed to contain various curative properties—their bluish slime reportedly helps with infant development—and they are, in fact, highly nutritious. Rich in protein, iron, potassium, phosphorous, essential amino acids, and various vitamins, they're also low in fat.
The snails can harbor a parasitic nematode called "rat lungworm"—and nobody wants rat lungworm.
What's keeping us from eating them? The smuggled snails at LAX were labeled as Achatina fulica, but were actually Archachatina marginata, both of which are considered equally threatening to the ecosystem. But the greater worry is the fact that the snails can harbor a parasitic nematode called Angiostrongylus cantonensis—AKA "rat lungworm"—which can transmit eosinophilic meningitis to anyone who eats them, or anyone who comes into contact with their slime trails, which may harbor live nematodes. And nobody wants rat lungworm.
This isn't limited to giant African snails, though. Many land and freshwater snails, including those cooked as escargot, can contract the parasite by eating food that's been contaminated with rat droppings. There's yet to be a reported case in the US of anyone getting meningitis from an African snail. And if they're raised under appropriate conditions, that would be a much smaller concern—or at least no more significant than the current food-borne pathogens that the meat industry routinely face.
African farmers generally haven't managed to scale up the production of snails beyond subsistence levels, despite the relatively low cost of raising them and their status as a delicacy. Abroad, however, the giant African snail could potentially thrive on recycled agricultural waste and produce pound after pound of methane-free meat.
But could Westerners put aside their fear of things that slide around on a slimy foot and stick them in their mouths? Maybe. After all, escargot is already a thing, if only for a Francophile few, and whelks have broken free from their primarily English confines and made their way onto American plates. The Guardian's Tim Hayward had a chance to try the African snails, describing their texture as "somewhere between an undercooked artichoke heart and the cartilage from a premiership footballer's knee," which was apparently a compliment.
Heck, I'm sold.