It's Time To Legalize Haggis
Will a petition from a physician bring the USDA to its senses?
An American medical doctor and author has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking the agency to lift a decades-old rule banning the use of lungs in food. The petition, filed this month by Jonathan Reisman, argues the ban is unscientific.
"When I read the federal code and details of the lung law I quickly realized that the law made no medical or scientific sense and was not contributing to public health in any way," Reisman told me this week by email. If successful, his petition would lift a decades-old ban on the sale in this country of authentic haggis, a tasty, traditional Scottish dish typically containing sheep's lungs, heart, liver, and stomach, along with oatmeal, onion, suet, and spices.
Reisman, author of The Unseen Body: A Doctor's Journey Through the Hidden Wonders of Human Anatomy, filed the timely petition this month, just in time for this week's annual haggis-filled birthday celebration for Scotland's beloved national poet Robert Burns, born on January 25, 1759. Among Burns' best-loved works is his poem "Address to a Haggis," which he dedicated to his country's national dish and the "gushing entrails" that go into it.
The sale of authentic haggis has been illegal in the United States for decades, I explain in an entry on food bans that appears in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America. The ban has been in place since 1971 when a USDA study found—despite pushback from "[c]ertain interested parties"—that the lungs of livestock were unhealthy and could not be served as human food.
The ban appears in federal rules published at 9 C.F.R. § 310.16, which declare that "[l]ivestock lungs shall not be saved for use as human food." (The rules also state that inspected livestock lungs may be used in pet food unless an inspector condemns them.)
Are lungs safe for people to eat? Physician James Chlebowski, who submitted a comment in support of Reisman's USDA petition, thinks so. He explains that "as a family doctor who has practiced in rural Pennsylvania for 30 years, I have never seen any illness related to the consumption of lungs, which is common in the Mennonite, Amish, and homesteader communities here."
While those particular lungs aren't being sold commercially (and are for personal or family use instead), lungs from animals that would be sold commercially have added protection—they are already being inspected. That's because federal law mandates that every cow or sheep (and most other livestock) intended for commercial sale in this country must be inspected before and after slaughter by federal or state inspectors.
"Animal lungs with infections and parasites should, of course, be condemned and kept out of butcher shops," Reisman rightly explains. But thanks to the USDA rules, even perfectly safe and healthy lungs that pass USDA inspection can't be sold as human food.
The lung ban has succeeded not only in halting the import into this country of authentically prepared haggis from Scotland, but also the sale of domestically raised lungs for use in haggis in this country. That's a shame, Reisman notes, partly because "virtually every other advanced country allows lungs" to be sold as human food. And not just for haggis. Notably, while the lung ban is often painted as a haggis ban, it's not just Scots who want it lifted so they may consume a popular authentic food from their ancestral home.
"[T]he USDA rule also bans traditional lung-containing dishes from a variety of cultures, including those common to China, Nepal, and several European countries," I explained in a 2014 Vice article opposing the ban.
As that article's date suggests, I've hated the haggis ban for some time. Call it personal. My late grandmother, Margaret Ruthven, hailed from Scotland, and I've enjoyed authentic haggis there on several visits.
"On a trip to Scotland in 1994, a kilted tour guide defined haggis for me as 'all the parts of the sheep you wouldn't want to eat, boiled inside its stomach,'" I wrote for Vice. "That didn't dissuade me from trying (and enjoying) haggis."
Last year, on a great return visit to Edinburgh, I again enjoyed some excellent, authentic haggis.
"I did eat haggis in Edinburgh and I loved it," Reisman tells me. "The liver taste was not overpowering, but in perfect balance with the grains and other organs. Delicious!"
It is delicious! Haggis is also a time-tested, celebrated, safe, and culturally significant food that Scots and the Scottish diaspora around the world are free to enjoy. Just not those of us in the United States—yet. Readers who support legalizing haggis can read Reisman's petition and submit their own comments to the USDA in support of lifting the ban by clicking here.