On Wednesday, Montana’s state Senate advanced legislation that “would allow people to salvage roadkill for food,” arguing that preventing the practice would mean throwing away a perfectly acceptable nutritional source. As bill supporter Sen. Larry Jent (D) put it, “It really is a sin to waste good meat.” But setting aside the inevitable jokes over the proposed “finders, eaters” law, the debate surrounding the measure’s public health implications provides a lens into America’s food safety regulatory scheme — and it’s more complicated than you might think.
Montana is hardly the first state to propose something like this. In fact, there are already roadkill-salvaging laws on the books in at least seven states — including Alaska, Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia — with varying degrees of regulatory requirements. Most of these laws either require the would-be roadkill consumer to carry a permit that allows them to salvage the kill, or report the salvaging to law enforcement and state wildlife departments. While there are guidelines for how to safely consume the “smooshed meat” — for instance, almost all such laws are limited to run-over game such as elk and deer, which should be “bled, gutted, and quartered” as quickly as possible to cool off the carcass and prevent infections — there isn’t really an enforcement mechanism for them, so the consumer takes on some individual risk.
However, whether or not that risk is greater than the risk of eating mass-produced meats is an open question. Animal protection groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have actually advocated for loosening roadkill standards, claiming that “[e]ating roadkill is healthier for the consumer than meat laden with antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants, as most meat is today.” The historical data — and recent events — shows that there is something to that argument. American-produced meat tends to exceed acceptable levels of contamination by most countries’ standards, and the consolidation of meat resources by mammoth corporate distributors like Cargill Beef makes it so that just one contaminated batch necessitates nationwide recalls of tens of thousands of pounds of product. Many public health advocates also argue that food regulators are woefully impotent to hold the meat industry accountable for its shortcomings in the face of lax regulatory enforcement and “ag gag laws” that silence whistleblowers who expose facilities violating food safety standards.
And the argument that roadkill-salvaging laws help prevent the waste of good meat actually could be an important point for low-income communities. Some of this type of legislation is intended to address food insecurity in secluded communities. For instance, Alaska’s caribou- and bear-salvaging provisions are meant to help churches and soup kitchens distribute food to the homeless and the poor in a state where access to roads and super markets isn’t always easy to come by. Montana’s proposed law has similar intentions.
Some Montana legislators have raised concerns over law enforcement’s capacity to evaluate whether or not roadkill is safe for consumption, and the ambiguous liability laws governing shelters and food banks that might distribute such meats. “Despite its good intention, it doesn’t pass the smell test for me,” said state Sen. Kendall Van Dyk (D). But considering America’s lackluster record on meat safety and the widespread — and relatively safe — U.S. culture of hunting big game for personal consumption, those concerns might very well be overstated.