It's Burns Night this weekend, and yet millions of Americans of Scottish descent will be unable to enjoy Scotland’s national dish, the haggis. Since 1971, the US government has banned the export of haggis to America, and so Boisdale has initiated a campaign to change this.
This resulted in Lord McColl of Dulwich raising questions in the House of Lords last Thursday (though perhaps he took a rather ambitious approach, suggesting that haggis could help solve America’s obesity pandemic!). We have also written to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, only to discover that nothing has happened since Owen Paterson left his post there in the reshuffle, shortly after his visit to the US to discuss the haggis issue.
On Tuesday, we held a Burns Night Supper at Boisdale of Bishopsgate at which the guest of honour was Stanley Philips, the councillor for agricultural affairs from the US Embassy in London. He told me that he found the haggis surprisingly delicious, that he could see no reason why the US population should continue to be deprived of it, and that he will bring the matter to the attention of the ambassador.
To my mind, this somewhat amusing and seemingly frivolous cause actually resonates with surprisingly important themes. For the national dish of Scotland to be banned from an American population of which 8 per cent (24.7m in the 2009 census) claim Scottish descent is extraordinary. Boisdale is campaigning to give those ex-patriated Scots the freedom to celebrate Burns Night in traditional fashion, and enjoy their heritage whenever the desire to do so arises. The US government should not be depriving a minority group of their national dish!
Clearly haggis has a place in America, and Scotland’s haggis industry would benefit not only to the tune of more bagpipes, but also from a very significant export market (which I estimate to be worth over £20m in time). This potential market is also not exclusively among those of Scottish descent. The three Boisdale restaurants sell four tons of haggis a year, the vast proportion of which is consumed by non Scots. Haggis is delicious and nutritious and, in over 25 years, we have never had a haggis poisoning.
So why the US ban? The issue is apparently lamb lung. Is this an American aversion or real fear of a health risk? The process of making haggis, which involves completely cooking the product before making it available to the public, is 100 per cent safe. Certainly safer than the automatic weapons legal in many parts of America.
Haggis is a cultural icon, and with its consumption in the US can come both a remembrance of our diverse shared culture and an increased likelihood that other vestiges of our heritage will be celebrated, such as the tartan, song and the pipes. In a very small way it is a catalyst to the promotion of Scotland, stimulating the purchase of Scottish goods, and ultimately a reminder for the diaspora to plan a visit: all great for Scotland and great for Britain.
The fact that Scots all over the world mark Burns Night with a steaming plate of haggis, celebrating Robert Burns as the great republican poet to whom Abraham Lincoln once made a memorable speech in praise, and to whom John Steinbeck dedicated one of the most important books of twentieth century US literature, adds ironic spice.