Rejoice, lovers of meat and adventure. Or give thanks, as it were. In two years, you may very well be able to enjoy a spot of Scottish lamb with your American turkey. And with that lamb, all that comes with it — including, even, the legendary Scotch haggis.
Earlier this month, Richard Lochhead, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the cabinet secretary of Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment, led a delegation of diplomats and businessmen on a mission to promote Scottish cheeses, meats and, of course, Scotch, to the East Coast. The export of Scotland’s famous lamb to a nation of 10 million self-identified “Scots” was, however, at the top of the agenda.
“We know that around 10 million U.S. citizens claim Scottish heritage,” Lochhead told TheDC, “so we have a ready-made market with them and with Scots at heart. I am hopeful that by this time next year Scottish expats in the U.S. will once again be able to enjoy top quality lamb and haggis that truly gives them a taste of home.”
The call is going to come down to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which decides what foreign beasts are safe to import. And it’s a tough battle — the American ban on Scottish lamb goes back decades.
Here’s a short timeline to bring everyone up to date:
1989: Three years after Mad Cow Disease was first reported in the United Kingdom, the United States banned all hoofed European animals — “live cattle, sheep, bison, and goats” — from entering the country.
2006: The worldwide ban on E.U. cattle exports is lifted, but a 2005 lobbying effort to persuade President George W. Bush fails to open up American markets.
2011: Mr. Lochhead makes his first major push as secretary for a lift of the ban.
2013: The United States lifts its ban on importing beef from the E.U., and begins reviewing individual countries.
January 2015: Ireland, which once accounted for 70 percent of American beef imports, becomes the first European country allowed to resume shipping beef to America.
November 2015: Lochhead leads another delegation to Washington, bringing with him National Sheep Association’s George Milne, National Farmers Union Scotland VP Rob Livesey, and James MacSween, head of the largest haggis company in Scotland.
“The fight to legalize haggis has been going on for decades,” MacSween told TheDC. “I think this is the closest we’ve come to getting haggis on the menu, and I’m confident by 2017 we will be exporting Scotch haggis.”
“From the meeting, beef is a work in progress and we should be able to import [Scottish] beef into America. And what is going to happen in the next two years, lamb is going to be on the menu — Scotch lamb is going to being imported into America.”
But hold your horses. Or sheep. Even Scottish lamb being exported into the United States doesn’t mean haggis, as it is made in Scotland, is A-OK. Indeed, at this point that isn’t even on the table. And the reason is lung.
But before anyone gets squirmy, an explanation of haggis is in order.
“The problem with haggis,” MacSween says, “is it’s misunderstood.”
Haggis is the ancient and traditional national dish of Scotland, but don’t confuse it with a delicacy. Made with “the fifth quarter,” haggis is lung, liver, heart and kidneys — “the traditional parts,” MacSween says — minced with spices, suet, oatmeal and onions before being cooked in the sheep’s stomach. It’s actually not unlike an authentic sausage you might find at an American BBQ.
“As a nation,” MacSween told TheDC, “we embrace the nose to tail eating tradition; nothing goes wasted.”
While references to haggis go back as early as King Richard II in the early 1300s, iterations of it exist all over Europe: Iceland has slátur, Poland has kaszanka sausage, the Danes have frikadeller. The word “haggis” may even derive from the French word “haché,” or, “to chop,” and likely hails back to either the Romans or the Vikings, MacSween says.
So why the Scottish connection? In a name, Robert Burns — the Ayrshire poet who mocked the Edinburgh upper class’s obsession with the day’s French cuisine and utter rejection of all things native in his poem, “Ode To A Haggis:”
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs, an’ arms an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle
Five years after Burns’ death, the first “Burns Supper” was held on his Jan. 25 birthday. Now an international Scottish celebration, the feast begins with bagpipes piping in the guests, and comes to a head with the piping in of the main course, the haggis, served under a dram of Scotch as part of the holy haggis trinity: turnips (“neeps”) and potatoes.
“Haggis isnt Scottish,” MacSween tells us. “We’ve just been looking after it.”
So with lamb back on the menu, this all should be just fine, right? Unfortunately, no, because since 1971, the USDA has banned lung from being sold as food within the confines of the United States over tuberculosis fears. Meaning, even if you drop your own sheep off at a butcher, when he gives the meat and offal back to you, he is required to confiscate the lung.
Today, thanks to domestic ingenuity, Americans can indeed buy haggis made domestically, but it lacks the lungs and is cooked in an artificial casing (not unlike a hot dog). And, if it matters to you, it isn’t made with Scottish lamb.
To get around the lung-ban, and into U.S. markets, James — the third-generation MacSween to head what is now the third-largest haggis-manufacturer in Scotland — is prepared to follow the American haggis-makers’ lead and remove the lung (though not natural casing) from his grandfather’s recipe.
“If we take lung out we can be able to send a Scottish-American haggis that wont have lung but it will still have offal in it,” he told TheDC. “Offal is traditionally the fifth quarter (lung, liver, heart, kidney) — the traditional parts.”
“We have some of the tastiest lamb in the world,” he boasts. “We have very clean, healthy hills and pastures. We will need to be clear that it is Scotch haggis.”
But before anyone holds their breath, don’t forget — we’re dealing with government here.
Still, Under Secretary of USDA Rural Development Lisa Mensah has “confirmed that they will publish a draft rule next year to pave the way for the return of Scotch Lamb onto U.S. plates,” Lochhead told TheDC.
— James Macsween (@JamesMacsween) November 12, 2015
“There are 60 days to comment at that point,” he explained to The Guardian, “and then they respond to comments and publish final rules in following months.”
“The lifting of the U.S. ban on imported lamb from the E.U. would allow Scotch lamb and haggis to get back on to the U.S. market, hopefully in late 2016 or 2017,” Lochhead told TheDC. “Of course, this would be a major development and unlock a huge market and millions of pounds of business for our Scotch lamb and haggis producers.”
Late 2016 or the year after isn’t so long, really, when you consider the 44 cold American winters that have passed without haggis. Fortunately, the Scots are a patient people.