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The USDA Doesn't Want Us to Eat Lungs

There's a USDA ban on one of the key ingredients in Scotland's national dish, haggis, which has kept it from American plates for 40 years. If he weren't dead, Robert Burns would be pissed.
Photo via Flickr user Euan

Earlier this week, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack met in Washington with representatives from the British government. Atop the list of issues UK environment secretary Owen Paterson was to bring up in his meeting with Vilsack is the continuing US ban on the sale of authentic Scottish haggis.

Haggis, Scotland's national dish, has been unavailable in the United States since 1971, when the USDA issued a succinct rule: "Livestock lungs shall not be saved for use as human food."


But sheep lungs are a key ingredient in haggis.

The reasoning behind the USDA's ban on lungs is generally couched in terms of food safety. Fluids—specifically, ones that might make you squeamish, including stomach fluids—sometimes make their way into the lungs of an animal during the slaughtering process.

An 1847 treatise recommends parboiling the lungs "to permit the phlegm and blood to disgorge from the[m]," one issue the USDA regulations sought to address.

The USDA ban has succeeded not only in halting the import of authentic haggis prepared in Scotland, but also on the sale of sheep lungs for use in haggis made in this country.

Notably, the US ban doesn't just target haggis. While often painted as a "haggis ban," the USDA rule also bans traditional lung-containing dishes from a variety of cultures, including those common to China, Nepal, and several European countries.

The rule does permit the use of lungs in pet food, where they're often found on ingredient lists.

The reasoning behind the USDA's ban on lungs is generally couched in terms of food safety. Fluids—specifically, ones that might make you squeamish, including stomach fluids—sometimes make their way into the lungs of an animal during the slaughtering process.

Still, Scottish and British government officials have been making the case to legalize haggis as people food for years—as, for example, in 2010 and again in 2013.

But what, exactly, is in haggis? In addition to sheep's lungs, traditional ingredients include sheep's heart and liver, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. These ingredients are minced together and boiled inside a sheep's stomach for several hours.


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." That didn't dissuade me from trying (and enjoying) haggis.

To be sure, it's not for everyone, but the dish counts legions of fans—not all of them Scottish. French-expat actor/ogre Gerard Depardieu, who appears if nothing else to be a fearless gourmand, enjoyed a good haggis (along with, apparently, a few too many traditional Scottish beverages) on a recent trip to Scotland. You might like it, too, if you can stomach its offal-y taste and a consistency that's somewhere between oatmeal and a Sloppy Joe.

Strong opinions about haggis have existed for hundreds of years. An 1823 magazine article, for example, referred to haggis as "this most hideous and indecent dish." But an 1829 text, The New Scotch Haggis, called it "a very agreeable dish," though likening haggis's ingredients to "old chaos."

Today, Scots unquestionably love their haggis. Just last month, a 2,227 lb., "car-sized" haggis smashed the previous record for the world's biggest haggis. The country also has at least one haggis food truck.

While they take haggis seriously, Scots have shown good humor when it comes their national dish. Many insist that haggis is a wild beast that roams the countryside, a ploy that's produced hilarious results. They've even got the research to back up the claim, as this fabulously amusing (but fake) scientific journal article on wild haggis breeding makes clear.


Efforts to end the US government ban, like the one this week, typically coincide with Burns Night celebrations in January. The star of that evening is celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns, who, in his 1786 "Address to a Haggis," crafted what must surely be one of the finest poems ever directed at a meal of offal and oatmeal.

So, why this summertime push to lift the ban? Just last month, Scottish haggis producers asked Secretary Paterson, who met this week with the USDA's Vilsack, to take up their case with the USDA.

I suspect the timing of the present push may have much to do with efforts in London to placate the Scots in advance of the upcoming Scottish independence vote in September. Polls show that the vote right now favors continuation of the 300-year-old union, but the gap has narrowed to its slimmest margin. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party, which favors independence from Britain, has fought for years to lift the ban.

Knowing the British government would likely do anything to maintain the union with Scotland, the haggis producers would appear to be attempting to cash in a chit.

Will it work? That's unclear. Rumors that the U.S. would lift the ban in 2010 proved false.

Until the ban is lifted, you can still buy haggis at many U.S. restaurants, including Highands, a Scottish gastropub in Manhattan. But keep in mind that, without a good set of lungs, it just isn't authentic.

If you can get your hands on a pair of lungs, watch our video for how to make your own haggis with Ben Reade over here.