Rosa Casimiro had always kept a few guinea pigs around the house. But her population started exploding last December. Now the single mother has 220 guinea pigs. And every month she brings another 70 or more to the market.
Ms. Casimiro's family is among 360 households in Huarmey, a coastal region 160 miles north of Peru's capital, Lima, trying to lift themselves from poverty by breeding the furry critters. Her operation has already doubled her family's income. "The money pays for my 12-year-old boy's schooling," she says.
And, like thousands of other rural Peruvians who've turned to guinea-pig breeding, the Huarmey families are hoping to boost their earnings further by supplying the US guinea-pig market.
But the guinea pigs aren't pets. And they're not for testing new drugs. They're for dinner.
Agricultural economists say increasing exports of guinea pig meat – widely eaten in the Andean region – could take a bite out of poverty here. Guinea-pig meat is already gaining popularity in the United States, thanks to steady immigration from Peru and Ecuador. But there are hurdles, not least the repulsion among North Americans who regard the rodent as a laboratory animal or cuddly pet – not as a meal.
Cavia porcellus has played a vital role in Andean culture, medicine, and cuisine for more than 4,000 years. Today, guinea pigs remain an important protein source in highlands from Bolivia to southern Colombia.
Here in Peru, decades of urbanization have brought guinea pigs from the highlands to major cities. Families that don't breed their own can order the dish at restaurants, buy the meat frozen at grocery stories, or choose from thousands of live specimens at open-air markets. The country consumes about 65 million guinea pigs a year.
That industry is reaching new heights thanks to guinea-pig husbandry training organized by universities, nongovernmental organizations, and the National Institute of Agrarian Research and Extension, part of the Agriculture Ministry. In Huarmey, a three-month course last year brought in professors from La Molina National Agrarian University in Lima. They taught 80 local women state-of-the-art feeding and breeding techniques.
"Even the poorest family can afford to raise guinea pigs," says Gloria Palacios, who directs La Molina's small-livestock farm. They require less space and reproduce faster than other livestock, she says. And instead of expensive feed concentrate they can thrive on alfalfa, corn leaves, or even kitchen scraps.
Each Huarmey pupil received eight starter guinea pigs – one male and seven females. These aren't ordinary boars and sows. They're from an experimental breed developed over the last three decades. While traditional guinea pigs seldom exceed two pounds, the new breed can reach seven. And it grows more quickly.
The Huarmey course was a boon to the women, many of whom had been earning minimum wage (about $140 a month) from a Chilean company that harvests and packages asparagus. "They'd go to work with their kids on their back," Ms. Palacios says.
In a good month – guinea-pig sales are brisk before any holiday – the breeding generates about $300 for Casimiro, who supports her son and elderly parents on a five-acre farm. The family's only other income consists of her father's $100 monthly pension and a smaller amount from crops such as peas, corn, and alfalfa.
After the training, the women formed the John Paul II Small Livestock Breeders Association, which has grown to include 360 households. Now Casimiro, the association president, is looking for credit to bring more families into the project and break into the international market.
Peru's two main guinea-pig exporters already ship an estimated 20 tons of frozen meat – about 20,000 pigs – per year to the United States. Ecuador exports thousands more.
The meat reaches some of the estimated 2 million Peruvians and Ecuadorians in the United States. Most have arrived over the past decade and settled in Los Angeles, Chicago, and cities along the East Coast. And their numbers keep growing.
"The market potential is clearly there," says Paul Winters, an agricultural economist at American University in Washington, D.C. "The question is whether you can get the scale of production among smaller, poorer farmers that would allow them to export. As soon as you try to start upscaling these types of production activities, almost immediately someone with more resources and more capacity enters the market and takes it away. So it'll require the Peruvian government to assist in the organization."
Another problem is unpredictable red tape at US ports. Guinea-pig meat enters the country duty free, but is classified as "exotic" or "other" by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Shipments can get held up by one-size-fits-all inspections and paperwork for meats ranging from snake to kangaroo.
"If guinea pig had its own rules, shipments would double or triple, because exporters would have more confidence," says Ricardo Castillo, general manager of Cassandra Productions, Peru's oldest guinea-pig exporter.
After making it into the United States, guinea pig faces other hurdles. California outlaws the meat because it comes from an animal commonly used as a pet.
And it's far from clear that guinea pig will ever cross over to the US mainstream. Alejandro Riveros, head of public diplomacy for Peru's Embassy in Washington, D.C., insists it will. "People in America are concerned about health and obesity," he says, noting that guinea pig has more protein and less cholesterol than beef, pork, or chicken. "And it's tasty."
The flavor, indeed, is something like chicken. But the meat is sinewy and scant. And, traditionally, the guinea pig is splayed on its back and split open down the middle. Even smothered in sauce and surrounded by potatoes, rice, and salad, there's no mistaking its form. "People don't really want to see the entire animal," says Melissa Granados, who volunteers for Lima City, her grandmother's restaurant in Irvine, Calif.
How about if it were prepared with US tastes in mind – like, say, Guinea Pig McNuggets?
"I don't want to know," says Heidi Hansen, who runs Hope Habitat, a small-animal shelter in Milton, Del. "They're not meat animals to me. They're pets. I can understand that other countries need an inexpensive food source. But here in the US, we don't need to be eating them."
So far, the only US restaurants and supermarkets offering guinea pig are located in places where Peruvians or Ecuadorians have congregated. In the New York area, the meat turns up in Jackson Heights, Queens, and Patterson, N.J., but almost nowhere else.
Máximo Tejada, executive chef of Lucy Latin Kitchen in Manhattan, says guinea pig would not appeal to his customers.
"Even the Latinos consider it a rat," says Mr. Tejada, who was born in the Dominican Republic. "We do have different dishes from Peru, but not that."