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Ask the Experts

Is Scottish Haggis Safe to Eat?

by Leslie Pepper  

Q: A friend brought me a can of haggis from Scotland. It contains sheep offal (organs). I understand that imports of haggis have been banned by the U.S. and Canada. Is it safe to eat?

A: It’s probably not worth the risk. Haggis is a traditional, minced Scottish dish made with sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, often mixed with minced onions, spices, and oatmeal. The mixture is typically wrapped up in a casing—traditionally the animal’s stomach, but today sometimes an artificial casing—and cooked in suet (internal body fat surrounding the organs). Online descriptions characterize the taste of haggis as similar to peppery sausage, with a coarse, crumbly, oat-like texture.

While haggis is most often made with sheep offal (another word for internal organs), it can also be made from the organs of lamb (baby sheep) or various other animals, including pigs, cows, and deer.

You would be hard-pressed to find traditional Scottish haggis in an American restaurant or store, as the U.S. has banned imports of it since 1971. The ban specifically is on foods made with sheep lungs, which can contain fluid from the rumen (one of the four sections of a sheep’s stomach, also present in the stomachs of other ruminant animals). The fluid can migrate to the animal’s lungs during the slaughtering process.

“The first chamber of the rumen is a fermentation vat, full of microorganisms that live off of the forage consumed by the sheep,” said Edward R. Blonz, PhD, a nutrition expert and member of our editorial board as well as that of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. “If that chamber is not empty at the time of slaughter, that would make it easy for any of that microbial-rich gunk to slosh over into the lungs.”

While pre-slaughter fasting of the animal and proper cooking might mitigate those microbiological risks, it’s probably best to skip eating haggis, at least outside of Scotland where (in theory at least) you can get it made fresh by an experienced chef who can guarantee the animal was slaughtered properly, or who perhaps makes haggis without lungs. (Even then, you should steer clear if you are in frail health, have a compromised immune system, or are pregnant. And don’t feed haggis to a young child.)

Even if the food-safety factor doesn’t concern you, there’s another good reason to avoid haggis: It’s high in saturated fat and calories, especially when prepared with suet. A one-cup serving of traditional haggis contains 23 grams of saturated fat and 536 calories, according to one nutrition site. (Not surprisingly, haggis is not listed in the USDA’s nutrition database.)

Also see Are Fish Organs Safe to Eat?