The Scotsman on Sunday
25 August 2002
THE great chieftain o' the puddin' race may finally have met its match. Gushing entrails of haggis, as Scottish as shortbread, whisky and bad weather, should no longer be allowed to flow from bags made from sheep intestines, Britain's Food Standards Agency has ruled.
The independent food safety watchdog, created by the government, is pushing to outlaw the ingredient that makes Scotland's national dish boil in the bag because it poses a "theoretical" risk of BSE.
Fears have grown because sheep have eaten the same feed that gave cattle BSE, and it is possible that BSE has been hidden by scrapie in sheep and passed between flocks or from mothers to their lambs.
But the agency's formal request to the European Commission to outlaw sheep intestines on a Europe-wide basis as "a precautionary measure" has outraged chefs, politicians and fans of Robert Burns.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who is fighting to preserve the traditional integrity of the national dish, said that alternative casings made from artificial ingredients or imported cow intestines were poor substitutes.
"We cook our own haggis every year in January for Burns Night and you definitely need the intestine of the sheep.
"It wouldn't be the same without it. It would be like taking away the main ingredient. Sheep intestine gives it a nice texture and depth of flavour. If they ban it we would never be able to eat it properly."
Ramsay, one of Britain's most feted chefs who runs restaurants north and south of the Border, added: "It's a bit silly really because we are still serving a lot of offal and we served veal spinal cord last week. I can't see why the FSA want's to be over-cautious."
Sue Lawrence, a cook and writer who champions traditional Scottish cooking, said the proposed legislation would amount to "a little bit more erosion of our traditional way of cooking Scottish food".
She added: "I absolutely adore haggis. Not only is it Scotland's national dish but it's also delicious. It would be incredibly sad if we were no longer able to enjoy it in the traditional way."
James Macsween, who has run Scotland's best known haggis business - Macsweens of Edinburgh - for 50 years, has relied on sheep intestine as casing for ceremonial haggis for Burns suppers, St Andrew's Night and Hogmanay.
He said: "We still use it for when you need a haggis big enough for someone to address at big social affairs and it helps create an atmosphere, a mystique and a romanticism."
Macsween, who produces 500 tonnes of haggis a year, described the FSA call as "illogical" and fears it could ultimately lead to other haggis ingredients such as sheep heart and liver being outlawed.
"Scotland is renowned for its haggis as much as its shortbread, whisky and scenery. But I think this is just the thin end of the wedge."
His business could be left producing only vegetarian haggis, which already accounts for 20% of its production and is encased in plastic.
Macsweens already makes use of cow intestines imported from Paraguay and Uruguay to produce some of their smaller haggis but are concerned that foreign materials are not of the same quality as British produce. The use of British cow intestines has been banned since the late 1980s after the BSE crisis.
The FSA takes the view that although the use of sheep intestine only represents a theoretical risk, humans could develop the fatal brain condition nvCJD if BSE is present in sheep.
While the issue was surrounded by "considerable scientific uncertainty," the agency said the proposed ban could reduce the potential of infected meat entering the food chain by up to two-thirds if BSE were to be found in sheep.
But when asked about the impact on haggis, an FSA spokesman said the agency had been unaware that sheep intestines were still used to produce haggis.
"We were told the tradition is not to use sheep intestine and that this would not affect haggis. If some people are using it they would obviously have to fall into line."
The agency had believed the ban would only affect traditional sausage casings still commonly used by butchers - a move which could cost the industry £6.5m per year.
Although BSE has never been found in the UK sheep flock, only a small number of scrapie-affected sheep - some 200 - have been tested with the most effective method available.
The FSA says that until or unless there is European agreement, buying and selling casings made from sheep intestine will remain legal but added that consumers have a right to know now that it may be safer to avoid them. Nationalist politicians are livid at the prospect of traditional Celtic foods, including haggis and Welsh lamb sausages, now being at risk.
Plaid Cymru MP Simon Thomas said there was "not one scrap of evidence" that BSE had reached the sheep population and that the FSA's approach could lead to an unwarranted food scare.
An SNP spokesman said the proposal represented "officialdom gone mad".
"Haggis is a symbol of Scotland and any attempt to ban it is totally ludicrous."
Scottish Tories also criticised the plan. But some Burns enthusiasts were less concerned. Shirley Bell, the chief executive of the Robert Burns World Federation, said: "It is what is inside the haggis that's nice and not what it is encased with. If there is any risk to people I would be happy to settle for only synthetic cases."
A European Commission spokesman said the EC took the threat of BSE "extremely seriously" and would consider the proposal carefully in consultation with experts from all 15 European Union member states.