Of Obsolete Regulations and Post-Prohibition Haggis

What comes to mind when you think of Scotland? Bagpipes, certainly, perhaps Scotch whisky, maybe William Wallace (or at least a version that looks suspiciously like Mel Gibson). Above all these, however, is the unofficial national dish of Scotland, haggis, maybe ranking just below the inescapable fashion choice that is the kilt.

Haggis is one of those rare foods that is more famous—or infamous, depending on your sense of adventure—for the way it is prepared rather than how it actually tastes. In its most basic form, haggis is made by taking the “pluck” (heart, liver, and lungs) of a sheep, mincing it with onions, oatmeal, suet, salt, assorted spices, mixing it with beef stock, then stuffing it all in the sheep’s stomach and letting it simmer for a few hours. By this point you’re either wondering why someone would come up with such a recipe, let alone actually eat its result, or you’re already googling for your nearest Scottish pub, depending on your personality.

For the first group, keep in mind these are in fact the Scots we are talking about. Anyone who’d wear a dress (fine, a kilt) in the Highlands in winter will have no qualms about stuffing parts of a sheep inside another part of the same sheep and eating it.

As for the second group, we’ve got some bad news. Since 1971, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has banned all “human food” made with “livestock lungs.” Unfortunately, as we just described, sheep’s lungs are a key ingredient in authentic haggis, making up around 10 to 15 percent of the recipe. As such, the dish has been largely unavailable in the U.S. since then. Some pubs and restaurants continue serving the dish using substitute ingredients, but the “real deal” is still unavailable stateside.

Now, it’s fair to ask, “So what?”

Many of you were probably unaware of haggis’ existence until now, let alone the U.S. ban on it. And we doubt this knowledge will greatly affect your everyday life, unless you happen to be an aficionado of Scottish cuisine (as much as various combinations of meat, potatoes, and grain can be called “cuisine”). Yet there are two larger points to be made here.

The growth of government thrives on inertia. The USDA banned haggis based on certain assumptions about sanitation and transportation conditions—43 years ago. We’re not exactly experts on trans-Atlantic shipping, but we find it hard to believe that things haven’t gotten at least a little cleaner and quicker. Quite simply, this ban is outdated, and the fact that the USDA is only just now beginning to reconsider lifting it says a lot about how government functions. We cling to outdated regulations, ones that perhaps made sense at the time, but now are simply obsolete and should no longer apply. All too often, we sacrifice flexibility for security, the ability to adapt for the reliability of past practice.  There is playing it safe, and then there is refusal to change and adapt.

Just as importantly, one cannot simply ban something because it doesn’t match up with popular views of what is “normal.” Just because some government officials in 1971 found the concept of haggis unappealing doesn’t give them the right to completely erase a market for it. The fact that some places have found a way to serve haggis anyway proves this. If people want a product, then one way or another the market will find a way for them to indulge in “all the parts of the sheep you wouldn’t want to eat, boiled inside its stomach.”

We’re looking forward to our first post-prohibition haggis already.