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Why is Scottish Haggis Banned in the USA?

By Edited Apr 10, 2016 2 19

Haggis is known by name at least all around the world and it is widely touted and recognized as Scotland's national dish. Familiarity with haggis, however, very often ends with the name itself and it is probably more than fair to say that a wider majority of people actually have no real idea what haggis is, how it is made and what specific ingredients it contains. Elaborate and fanciful tales frequently abound of small furry animals, scampering through the heather, being mercilessly and relentlessly hunted by men with shotguns to decorate Scottish tables and feed Scottish families. Scots very often encourage these perceptions and secretly find great hilarity in the fact that such stories are often taken strictly at face value. It may serve as a surprise to many, however, to learn that nothing could be further from the truth and that haggis is actually an entirely man made product, comprised of a wide variety of ingredients, certain specifics of which are often a jealously guarded secret.

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties in Raw Form
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Haggis, neeps (rutabaga/Swede turnip) and tatties (potatoes) basic ingredients

Haggis is widely available in Scottish butcher's shops and supermarkets throughout the year. It is not, however, something you are likely to find gracing the average family's dinner table on a particularly regular basis. For many, eating haggis is actually a once a year event when it is popularly served in commemoration of Scotland's bard, Robert "Robbie or Rabbie" Burns, on or around January 25th each year (the anniversary of his birth) at formal Burns' Suppers or simply in individual households. It is most commonly served simply with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (rutabaga/Swede turnip) and very possibly a generous measure of whisky or two to wash it all down. It is also at this time of year that ex-pat Scots and those of Scottish descent in the USA and around the world look to celebrate their own heritage in similar fashion but for those in the United States seeking to sample and enjoy this traditional Scottish delicacy, there currently exists a very significant problem.

Decorative Haggis, Tatties and Neeps
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Decoratively presented haggis, tatties and neeps with an obligatory measure of Scotch whisky on the side

The USA Haggis Ban

It was in 1971 that the United States' Department of Agriculture imposed a blanket ban on the production, consumption and importing of Scottish haggis in the USA. At the time of writing (November 2015), it is a ban which remains in place. This regulation is very much a little known fact in Scotland itself (outwith the haggis production industry) and it was actually only in October 2015 that I became aware of it. I received an unsolicited e-mail asking me to sign a petition aimed at reversing the legislation. I thought the whole thing was a hoax until I did some simple investigations and found the ban to be very real. In order to even begin to understand why the banning order was put in place, however, it is essential to firstly dispel the haggis myths and look at the facts of haggis production and consumption.

Fresh Haggis
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Scottish haggis removed from its skin

What is in Haggis and How is it Made?

Different haggis producers have different recipes and the spice mix in particular is often a very closely guarded company/family secret. The basic ingredients however include the "pluck" of a lamb (its heart, liver and lungs), onions, oatmeal, beef fat and the spice mix. Spices commonly included are black pepper, nutmeg, allspice and coriander. The very informative video immediately below shows the mechanics of how these ingredients are combined and cooked by one of Scotland's top haggis producers, MacSweens, to form the finished product. It should be noted, though, that this is not a video which vegetarians or those with a squeamish capacity may wish to watch.

Sheep Lungs and the US Department of Agriculture

In 1971, the lungs from any form of livestock were banned as a foodstuff by the United States Department of Agriculture, due to the capacity for fluids to leak in to them during the slaughter process which could potentially be harmful to human health. As sheep lungs are largely deemed to be an indispensable ingredient in authentic Scottish haggis, imports of the real thing were consequently banned. Haggis was therefore a victim of the new law and not something which was specifically targeted. Despite a great many petitions and pleas in the interim, the ban remains in place and real Scottish haggis continues to be unavailable to people in the United States.

Since the ban has been put in place, haggis has of course been produced at a number of local levels in the United States, omitting sheep lungs from the ingredients list and therefore complying with the terms of the legislation. This would seem like a logical choice but comments made from those who have tasted haggis in Scotland and the amended version in the US suggest there is a notable difference, particularly in texture. 

Haggis Tatties and Neeps Pie
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Haggis, tatties and neeps made in to a pie topped with puff pastry and served with snowpeas and baby corn

The Future of the US Haggis Ban

Will Americans be able to enjoy real haggis again any time soon?

The haggis ban was further complicated in 1989 by the ban on imports to the United States of European Union (including British) beef in the wake of the BSE crisis. Ironically, it is the lifting of this ban early in 2015 which may just help to pave the way for a relaxation of the haggis restrictions. Although far from being likely at present, significant representation is currently being made to the US at local Scottish Government and UK National Government levels to have the ban repealed. Should such a rethinking ultimately come to pass, it may be that people in the United States will once again be able to enjoy Scottish haggis served simply in its traditional form, or by adapting one of the haggis recipes featured in the images on this page.

Haggis Cheese Toastie
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Haggis and Scottish cheddar cheese toastie

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Comments

Jan 6, 2016 11:18am
vicdillinger
I found this quite interesting, mostly as it relates to what the US government will waste its time and our tax dollars regulating. Good stuff, and I learned something. Thumb's up.
Jan 10, 2016 1:22pm
Browna86
Wondering their thoughts on tongues, tripe and other oddities that get cooked here?
Jan 10, 2016 2:08pm
vicdillinger
I'm a vegetation. And even when I wasn't (over 20 years ago) innards "meat" wasn't even an option--it was beneath consideration. But I know many cultures enjoy tripe and other stuff that would be better tossed in the dust bin, but it's their thing and doesn't hurt me one bit.
Jan 31, 2016 2:26pm
gnhlanarkshire
My brothers and I were raised by a vegetarian mother. Although it went against everything she believed in, she always made sure we had meat to eat. She actually used to ask the butcher to prepare the meat to an extent where she simply had to drop it in to the pot, as she couldn't bear to touch it...
Jan 10, 2016 2:09pm
vicdillinger
I'm a vegetation. And even when I wasn't (over 20 years ago) innards "meat" wasn't even an option--it was beneath consideration. But I know many cultures enjoy tripe and other stuff that would be better tossed in the dust bin, but it's their thing and doesn't hurt me one bit.
Jan 10, 2016 2:11pm
vicdillinger
And my grandfather ate beef tongue and ox tail and stuff like that. Ugh!
Jan 10, 2016 2:19pm
Browna86
I stick with the typical stuff that I'm familiar with. While shopping, I tend to come across these things often.
Jan 10, 2016 3:06pm
vicdillinger
I like to think that with the relative affluence in the West we don't HAVE to eat things like pork chitterlings (chit'lins), tripe of any kind, or animal brains any more.
Jan 31, 2016 2:27pm
gnhlanarkshire
I've always been adventurous with food. Given the choice between something I've eaten before and something I haven't, I'll most likely try the latter every time...
Jan 31, 2016 2:27pm
gnhlanarkshire
Yummm... Ox tail soup is fabulous...
Jan 31, 2016 2:23pm
gnhlanarkshire
Thanks, Vic. I honestly thought this was a "wind up" when I heard about it. I find the whole concept interesting.
Jan 31, 2016 6:14pm
vicdillinger
It's our US tax dollars at work. This really was an interesting piece, so thanks for putting it out there.
Jan 10, 2016 1:34pm
HLesley
Growing up in the UK I ate a lot of things people in North America would turn their noses up at. The older generation even more so. I used gross out watching my grandfather chowing down on tripe and onions and black pudding (AKA Blood sausage).
Jan 10, 2016 2:09pm
vicdillinger
Yikes!
Jan 31, 2016 2:30pm
gnhlanarkshire
I love black pudding and am determined to try making it. Unfortunately, I know what the smell is like when it's being prepared, having been in a friend's butcher's shop when he's been making it. It's beyond gross, as it involves boiling fresh pig's blood. I have a source for the fresh blood - but haven't yet been able to persuade anyone to allow me to use their kitchen...
Jan 10, 2016 1:34pm
HLesley
sorry.... used to gross out ..........
Jan 10, 2016 3:01pm
HLesley
But I have eaten haggis at Rabbie Burns dinners and I do enjoy it.
Jan 31, 2016 2:31pm
gnhlanarkshire
I was made eat haggis as a very young child by my Dad and wasn't particularly keen on it. For probably that reason, I didn't touch it for nigh on thirty years until an ex girlfriend got me to try it again one time. Now I love it!
Feb 2, 2016 9:43am
HLesley
"I have a source for ... blood"?! I'm not sure I really want to know ..............
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