In terms of food, America may be the land of the free, but not always. We’ll explore the fascinating world of foods that are prohibited in the US in this article. Despite the nation’s varied culinary scene, some edibles aren’t allowed because of safety issues, cultural differences, or legal constraints. Find out which flavors are off limits and won’t be seen on American plates, from problematic additives to exotic fruits. Discover the backstories of these culinary misfits and delve into the intricate network of rules dictating what is and isn’t acceptable to serve at an American dinner table.
Ortolan are small songbirds that serve as the main ingredient of a French dish called ortolan bunting. While most people may not look at small birds flying around as their first choice for food, they have been popular in Europe for a long time. The dish involves encouraging the birds to gorge themselves, then drowning them in brandy before eating them whole and spitting out the bones. Unfortunately, ortolan population levels have plunged dangerously low due to overhunting. In an effort to preserve this historically popular species, nations like France have announced their intent to enforce laws protecting the birds much more strictly.
Ackee are relatively small fruits that look a little like peppers. Their exterior turns from green to red as the fruit ripens, and eventually, the lobes split to show their interior membrane with black seeds. The reason ackee is illegal in many places is simple: most of the fruit is toxic. Only the arils (the part covering the seed) are safe, with a faintly almond-like flavor. Arils need to ripen and split naturally before even that part is safe enough, and most parts of the world don’t want to take the risk. The only place you can find ackee in relatively common quantities is Jamaica, but even then, you should limit yourself to restaurants that can prepare it safely.
Sea turtles have a long history, with some estimates placing them as a species over one hundred million years old. In the last few hundred years, humans have eaten their eggs and meat, and you can even see items like containers and fishhooks made from turtle shells in the past. All of this has led to their current status as an endangered species, and as such, eating them is now illegal in America. In addition, current protections go beyond that, and it’s illegal to even touch a sea turtle in America. However, you can view them from a distance in places like Hawaii.
Known as the national dish of Scotland, haggis is a complicated dish that can be a little hard to describe. It’s both pudding-like and resembles a big sausage due to traditionally being encased in a sheep’s stomach. Haggis is made by combining a sheep’s stomach, liver, heart, and lungs with onions, oatmeal, suet, some broth, and assorted spices. True haggis is illegal in the United States because it contains sheep lungs, which are banned for use as human food. The reason they’re illegal is that they hold a lot of microbes, which makes them a greater food safety risk. However, some people make versions of haggis without lungs, and these versions are legal in the US.
Shark fins come from a worldwide trade that likely kills over a hundred million sharks per year. The process involves catching a shark and cutting off its fin for food, then tossing the animal back into the ocean to die. Although shark finds are considered a delicacy in many parts of Asia, the practice is currently banned in the US because it threatens many sharks with extinction. It’s worth noting that the purported health benefits of shark fin soup do not exist. The fin is entirely cartilage, which has no nutritional value. Shark fins are eaten mainly for the prestige of eating something rare and valuable, which only encourages people to harvest more.
Don’t let the name fool you here – beluga caviar doesn’t come from the well-known beluga whale. It’s actually from the beluga sturgeon (also known as the huso huso), one of the largest species of bony fish. Beluga sturgeon have been fished heavily for the delicious and valuable roe from females, and today the species is critically endangered. Beluga caviar can sell for up to $10,000 per kilogram. Part of this cost comes from its amazing texture and flavor, but it also takes a massive investment to harvest the roe. Beluga sturgeons take about twenty-five years before they lay eggs, so farmers have to invest an incredible amount of time to get this food in the first place. Check out other types of caviar that you can enjoy!
Horse meat is one of the more unusual bans on food in America. It’s still popular across many parts of Eurasia, and in America, many people ate it during World War 2 as a substitute for other meats. Horse meat is healthier than beef overall, and with advancements in transportation technology, it made sense to find another purpose for them. Laws have gone back and forth on whether to outlaw it, but horses are often seen more as pets than as livestock across the country. The result is a distaste for eating them despite the meat’s overall quality, but this is one ban that could get reversed if economic conditions change too much.
Kinder Surprise Eggs
Wait, candy’s illegal, too!? You may have seen Kinder-branded products on the shelves of local grocery stores, but those are variants produced for the United States. Kinder Surprise Eggs are more available in the rest of the world, with each egg containing a toy inside for children to enjoy. The “inside” part is why they’re illegal in the United States. The government sees the toys as a potential choking hazard for small children, so there are significantly more regulations on them. The toys remain popular worldwide, though, and current estimates indicate there are more than twelve thousand Kinder toy types in total.
Sassafras oil is a distilled product that comes from the root bark of sassafras trees. It’s also broadly illegal for two reasons. First, the oil contains a lot of safrole, a toxic ingredient that can cause health issues. Sassafras oil is also one of the common ingredients of MDMA, or ecstasy, a heavily-controlled Schedule I substance. Even without getting into the drug aspect, its notable toxicity is reason enough to ban sassafras oil. However, the oil has some uses, and handlers can manufacture and sell it under strict regulatory and reporting guidelines.
Casu marzu is better known as the world’s most dangerous cheese, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Made on the Italian island of Sardinia, this cheese involves encouraging a breed of fly to land on the cheese and lay eggs, with the eggs hatching into maggots that transform the proteins as they pass through. If the idea of eating live maggots makes you wince, then you understand why a limited number of people enjoy this cheese. Although it’s registered as a traditional product and receives some legal protections, the Italian government bans it because of limits on eating food infected by parasites. The United States generally agrees with that principle. I’ll stick to other Italian cheeses, thanks.
Queen conches are mollusks living mainly in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Bermuda areas. They can live up to thirty years, and many people consider them tasty. As with many other foods on this list, the popularity has led to over-harvesting, so the government has clamped down on harvesting to help preserve the species. Although banned in most areas, there are a few places where catching a queen conch is allowed during regular fishing seasons, and harvests are occasionally permitted by local governments.
Redfish is the common term for many fish species, but the ban on it refers mainly to the red drum. They received protection in 1987 after overfishing due to a food craze, but the legality has since changed to focus on state laws. Nowadays, sport fishers can catch one to five per day, depending on the state, but commercial harvesting is still widely banned. If you want to try this dish, go to Florida. It’s a popular game fish, and you can catch it privately or share a meal with someone else who reeled it in. In that sense, redfish is one of the easiest options on this list to enjoy legally. Just don’t expect to drop by a supermarket and see any for sale there.
Absinthe is one of the most-storied alcohols, with production going back almost as long as human history. The recipe has changed over time, though, and these days it involves distilling neutral alcohol with anise, fennel, and wormwood. Some manufacturers also add ingredients like lemon balm and star anise. While there are some difficulties with the original recipe, a different version of absinthe that’s low in thujone (a problematic chemical from the wormwood) is now legal in America. It’s essentially impossible to get enough thujone from absinthe to trigger hallucinogenic episodes, as this is such a high-proof drink that alcohol poisoning would kill you first.
Foie gras is legal in most of the United States, but it’s banned in a few states. This dish uses livers from geese or ducks that have gone through force-feeding to adjust their organs. Most places that sell it serve it baked into a crust, and it’s eaten alongside truffles, seasonings, and brandy. Although many people consider foie gras delicious, they also see the production technique of sticking a tube into a bird’s throat and giving it far more food than it would normally eat to be an inhumane method of production. That makes this a food banned mainly on ethical grounds rather than being toxic or endangered like most things on this list.
Fugu, also known as Japanese puffer fish, are among the most dangerous fish in the world. Many parts of fugu are rich in tetrodotoxin, a chemical significantly more lethal than cyanide, and adequate safety measures are necessary to ensure none of the poisonous parts get into the food. While banned in most areas, fugu may occasionally be served with a license. It can also be purchased in a ready-to-serve format shipped from Japan, which most areas accept as adequately safe.
Raw milk is banned on the interstate level, as all milk going across state lines must be pasteurized and meet federal safety standards. However, it’s legal in some areas on a state-by-state basis, with places like Arizona and California allowing it under certain guidelines. The primary concern here is that raw milk may be dangerous, especially if not stored properly. Some people believe that raw milk is healthier than pasteurized products, though, so it has something of a cult following in areas that allow it.
Bushmeat is a generic term that refers to minimally processed or raw meat from wild animals, especially from Africa. The meat can be a mix of several types of animals, including antelope, primates, rats, and bats. For transport, some people smoke or dry the meat. Bushmeat is generally illegal in the United States due to health concerns, including the possible transmission of Ebola. Bushmeat often has poor tracking, so it can be difficult or impossible to know what’s inside it, and that’s another point against it.
Bird’s Nest Soup
Bird nests are another ingredient most people don’t think of as food, but this isn’t a bundle of sticks. The nest in bird’s nest soup is edible saliva made by the swiftlet, a small bird native to parts of Asia. The nests are usually high up and dangerous to reach, and people have lost their lives collecting them. Worse, swiftlets are endangered, so eating their nests reduces the population even further. To help mitigate this, some places are trying to farm the nests, although this hasn’t been running for long enough to show real results. The soup itself is usually served with sugar as a dessert but has a mild taste on its own.
Chilean Sea Bass
The name Chilean sea bass refers to two species of toothfish: the Patagonian and Antarctic varieties. Calling them bass is mainly a marketing strategy. These fish are managed to help limit the impacts of illegal fishing strategies, but they’re not listed as truly endangered yet. I appreciate that Chilean sea bass is allowed in many stores and restaurants as long as they follow basic guidelines, including checking documentation to verify the fish’s origin. The meat itself is delicious and plentiful on a per-fish basis, but it requires a little care to prepare it for the best flavor. That’s why I usually see this in higher-end shops.
Époisses cheese is an exceptionally soft cheese made only in small amounts. The proper form of this cheese requires raw milk, but safety guidelines in America limit production to a variant made with pasteurized milk. This cheese has a powerful smell but a milder flavor, with most people describing it as a little like fruit, garlic, and animal. You can find the real version of this cheese if you go to Italy, but while the local version doesn’t have the same flavor, it’s an acceptable substitute. You can skip the wine pairings. I normally recommend enjoying them together, but Époisses is unusual enough that it doesn’t fit most wines.
Camembert is another unpasteurized cheese, and therein lies the same problem Époisses has in America. The real recipe is illegal because fresh cheeses made with raw milk aren’t seen as safe in the United States, although varieties from pasteurized milk are legal and quite good on their own merits. Camembert is somewhat chalky and runny, with a sweet and buttery flavor to it. The rind has a fungus on it, and it is edible. I recommend pairing this cheese with a good, lighter red wine for the best flavors.