6 surprising foods you didn’t know were banned in the US

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 29, 2020

Key Takeaways

Certain foods that are considered traditional dishes or delicacies in some countries—such as horse meat, foie gras, or shark fins—are actually banned in the United States or certain states. Some foods are verboten because of ethical concerns regarding animal welfare. Still, other foods are prohibited due to concerns over potential health risks to people.

Here are six foods banned by Uncle Sam due to health concerns in humans.

Ackee fruit

Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. This tropical fruit is eaten when fully ripe and is used in an assortment of jams, drinks, and candies. When it’s unripe, however, ackee contains high levels of the toxin hypoglycin A, which disrupts blood glucose production and increases the risk of hypoglycemia. Left unchecked, hypoglycemia can lead to coma and even death. Thus, the importation of the raw fruit has been banned by the FDA since 1973. However, the fruit may still be purchased in canned and frozen forms. 

“Based on the potential for harmful levels of the toxin, hypoglycin A, from improper processing of ackee, FDA intends to assess all facilities of ackee for export to the United States on a plant-by-plant basis prior to considering the admissibility of their ackee product(s) offered for import into the United States. As foreign facilities are identified to have food safety controls in place to control for the toxin, hypoglycin A, in their ackee products, the firm and product(s) will be identified on the Yellow List of this Import Alert,” notes the CDC.

Japanese pufferfish

Japanese pufferfish goes by many names, including fugu, bok, blowfish, and globefish. It is a delicacy that is gingerly prepared by the best sushi chefs in the world. Why “gingerly”? Because the skin, liver, gonads, and intestines are chock-full of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin/saxitoxin. (Feel bad for the first human who made this discovery.)

This neurotoxin is more dangerous than cyanide. If pufferfish is not properly prepared and rid of the toxins, neurological symptoms can manifest between 20 minutes and 2 hours following consumption. Initial symptoms include tingling of the lips and mouth, which may be followed by dizziness, tingling of the arms and legs, muscle weakness, paralysis, and vomiting. Poisoned diners can die of respiratory paralysis. 

Cooking or freezing pufferfish will not destroy the toxins. In fact, thawing the whole fish can cause the toxins to suffuse into the flesh, making the whole animal poisonous—even after expert preparation. The import of pufferfish is currently restricted to one plant in Japan, where specially trained cutters ensure food safety. 

Of note, pufferfish are also found in the waters of Florida. Consequently, Florida has banned harvesting the fish, too.

Traditional haggis

Haggis may be the national dish of Scotland, but its traditional iteration is unwelcome in the United States.

While some people love haggis, others think it’s awful. The reason for such controversy largely lies with the main traditional ingredient of the dish: offal, or sheep organ meats that include the lungs, hearts, and liver. Once minced and cooked with onion, the offal is then mixed with oatmeal, suet, and seasoning; stitched into the sheep’s stomach; and boiled for up to 3 hours. It is served with potatoes, turnips, and—if so inclined—a shot of whiskey.

In 1971, the US banned the importation of haggis due to the fact that proper haggis contains sheep’s lungs. All animal lungs are banned by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) over concerns that dangerous fluids, including stomach fluids, may contaminate the animals’ lungs during the butchering process, which increases the risk of foodborne illness in humans.  

Indeed, in one study, researchers found that freshly procured Scottish haggis contained several strains of bacteria—including Bacillus, Lactobacillus, Staphylococcus—yeasts, and molds. After 3 weeks of spoilage, the number of contaminants and lactic-acid bacteria increased ten-fold.

For years, there have been mumblings that haggis may be on its way back to the United States, with the ban to be lifted. We’ll see …

British beef and lamb

Way back in 1989, the United States banned the import of British beef and lamb over concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a condition better known as mad cow disease. Although the ban still stands today, some health experts believe that concerns over the risk of BSE derived from British beef or lamb are likely overblown. In 2015, for instance, there were only two cases of BSE in the United Kingdom and no cases in 2016, compared with more than 1,000 cases per week in 1993, at the height of the BSE epidemic.

As with haggis, there have been rumors that the United States may be considering lifting the ban on British beef and lamb. In 2019, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed updating current regulations regarding BSE: “Because it has been shown that sheep and goats and other small ruminants pose a minimal risk of spreading the BSE disease agent, APHIS is proposing to remove the current BSE-related restrictions on imports of live domestic sheep, goats and small ruminants, as well as most sheep and goat products.” 

Kinder Surprise eggs

If you have a young child, you’re likely familiar with Kinder Joy eggs. These egg-shaped, split-chocolate treats come with a toy separate from the chocolate egg. An earlier iteration of the delicacy sold in Europe, called Kinder Surprise eggs, has been banned in the United States because the toy is contained inside the chocolate egg, which poses a choking hazard per the US government. 

According to the FDA, the following are banned: “Confectionery products containing non-nutritive components, such as small toys or objects, which may be partially or completely embedded in the food product.”

As of 2018, the United States Customs and Border Protection has seized more than 160,000 Kinder Surprise eggs from international travelers and in international mail shipments.

Absinthe with thujone

Absinthe is fabled to increase creativity, and was well-loved in the artistic community. It was a known favorite of Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway. But, how exactly does absinthe inspire creativity? It’s long been held that the drink may cause visual hallucinations and psychotropic effects. Because of this, when bans on alcohol were lifted following prohibition, absinthe remained illegal in the United States—until recently.

In 2007, the sale of absinthe became legal in the United States, as long as the bottle contains < 10 parts per million of thujone. Thujone is a neurotoxin found in plant oils like wormwood, which is the key ingredient in absinthe that gives the beverage its distinct bite. Adverse effects of thujone include hallucinations, insomnia, kidney failure, nightmares,  rhabdomyolysis, restlessness, seizures, vomiting, and more. (Talk about a hangover!) 

“Thujone is banned as a food additive in the US and its presence in foods and beverages is regulated in several countries. However, many of the thujone-containing plant oils are used as flavoring substances in the alcoholic drink industry. Absinthe, made from wormwood, is available in Spain, Denmark and Portugal. Vermouth, chartreuse, and benedictine all contain small amounts of thujone and wormwood is popular as a flavoring for vodka in Sweden. Sage oil is an important food flavor, especially in sausages, meats, condiments, and sauces,” according to the NIH.

People who regularly drink thujone-containing absinthe can develop absinthism—a disorder characterized by dependence, hallucinations, and hyperexcitability. Some experts believe that Van Gogh was dependent on absinthe and consequently developed absinthism during his final years. 

Of note, by the end of the modern distillation process, authentic absinthe contains very little thujone. In fact, some experts have suggested that a consumer would be stricken with alcohol poisoning before they would experience any hallucinogenic effects from the brew.

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