Rosa Casimiro had always kept a few guinea pigs around the house. But her population started exploding in December. Now the single mother...

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LIMA, Peru — Rosa Casimiro had always kept a few guinea pigs around the house. But her population started exploding in December. Now the single mother has 220 guinea pigs. And every month she brings an additional 70 or more to the market.

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 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 have turned to guinea-pig breeding, the Huarmey families are hoping to boost their earnings further by supplying the U.S. guinea-pig market.

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 in Peru. Guinea-pig meat is 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.

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 thrive on alfalfa, corn leaves or kitchen scraps.

Each Huarmey pupil received eight starter guinea pigs — one male and seven females — from an experimental breed developed over the past 30 years. While traditional guinea pigs seldom exceed two pounds, the new breed can reach seven and the offspring grow 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 firm that harvests and packages asparagus.

In a good month — guinea-pig sales are brisk before any holiday — the breeding generates about $300 for Casimiro, who supports her son and 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.

Peru’s two main guinea-pig exporters ship an estimated 20 tons of frozen meat — about 20,000 pigs — a year to the United States. Ecuador exports thousands more.

The meat reaches some of the estimated 2 million Peruvians and Ecuadoreans in the United States. Most have arrived in the past 10 years and settled in Los Angeles, Chicago and East Coast cities. Their numbers keep growing.

“The market potential is clearly there,” says Paul Winters, an agricultural economist at American University in Washington, D.C.

One problem in exporting the meat is unpredictable red tape at U.S. 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 meat faces other hurdles. California outlaws the meat because it comes from an animal commonly used as a pet.

Also, it’s not clear that guinea pig will ever cross over to the U.S. 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. Maximo 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 Tejada, who was born in the Dominican Republic.