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Ban haggis, British health officials say

August 26, 2002 Ottawa Citizen by Ed Johnson
LONDON -- Scotland's most famous traditional dish, the haggis, is under threat because of a "theoretical risk" of mad cow disease.

Food safety experts said yesterday that the potent mix of oatmeal, liver, suet and onions held in a bag of sheep intestines should be banned because of the possible risk of the fatal brain-destroying illness.

Britain's Food Standards Agency wants the European Commission to ban the use of sheep intestines in food throughout Europe, fearing that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is present in sheep. The proposed ban would mostly affect lamb sausages wrapped in natural casings, but would also spell doom for traditional haggis, which has been eaten by Scots for centuries and was eulogized by the poet Robert Burns.

"We are now more aware of the extent to which sheep intestine is used in haggis production and this has prompted our request to outlaw its use throughout Europe," said a spokesman for the agency yesterday, on condition of anonymity.

Haggis fans lambasted the proposal, however, and said the dish, usually served with potatoes and turnips and doused with whisky, would not be the same without the traditional ingredient.

The Scottish National Party, which campaigns for an independent Scotland, dubbed the move "ludicrous," and said it was "officialdom gone mad."

Haggis was the staple diet of many Scots during the 18th century.

Burns did much to popularize the dish with his mock-heroic poem To a Haggis, which celebrated the "great chieftain o' the puddin-race."

Every year on Jan. 25, fans of the poet mark his birthday with a celebratory dinner. A haggis is led to the top table accompanied by a bagpiper, poetry is recited and the dish is toasted with a glass of whisky.

"It would be ridiculous if we had to alter the way haggis is made because of this," said David Smith, honorary secretary of the Burns Howff Club in Scotland, which celebrates the poet's life.

"Sheep intestines are an important element of haggis and there is no way we will stop eating it. Chefs would also be appalled if they were told they could not use sheep intestines, in fact they would find it laughable," he added.

The agency says there is a "theoretical risk" that BSE, which infected thousands of cattle during an epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, might also be present in sheep after flocks were fed recycled meat and bone meal from infected cows.

A human form of the disease, apparently spread by eating infected beef, has claimed more than 90 lives in Britain and parts of Europe.

The agency said sheep could theoretically carry BSE, which would develop in their intestines, although the disease has never been found in flocks.

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