“It really is a sin to waste that good meat when there’s no reason to, when it could be salvaged and somebody could use it.”
Those are the words of Montana State Senator Larry Jent, quoted at Montana Public Media and other outlets. As the Associated Press reported, it’s expected that Jent and other Montana lawmakers will OK legislation that would allow people to salvage the carcasses of roadkill elk, moose, deer, and antelope.
“If Montana residents can scrape it up, they can eat it,” the lead of the AP story states, slyly poking a little fun. The reason that this story has drawn national attention is that it’s an easy opportunity for jokes. To most people, the concept of eating roadkill seems pretty gross. But doesn’t the concept, as laid out by Jent above, also sorta make sense? No one’s forcing you to eat roadkill. If someone wants to, why should the law stop them?
From horse meat to insects, people around the world eat all sorts of things that might not be to your tastes. And Montana isn’t alone in its position regarding roadkill: Roadside carcasses are already collected for personal consumption and/or for food charities in states such as Alaska, Wisconsin, New York, Florida, West Virginia, and Illinois.
Naturally, there are health concerns. Reuters quoted the worries of one Montana lawmaker voicing opposition to the bill:
“Are highway patrolmen and law enforcement experts in meat inspection?” asked Democratic Senator Kendall Van Dyk. “I have not seen anything in the bill … that indicates to me that the safety parameters are in place to let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is a safe food source for those in need, or anyone else for that matter.”
Cattle industry representatives have also come out against the roadkill bill, citing the possibility of people eating bad meat. Then again, maybe they’re viewing roadkill as competition. In an ABC News story last month, one food expert laid out his safety concerns regarding roadkill:
“The risk is relative depending on the condition of the animal and how it was killed,” said Benjamin Chapman, a food safety specialist with North Carolina State University. “In roadkill if you happen upon the animal, you don’t know its condition, which makes it riskier than eating regulated food or an animal you’ve hunted.”
Later in the piece, however, Chapman simply recommended cooking large game to an internal heat of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, with the assistance of a meat thermometer.
So long it’s safe for consumption, roadkill is potentially a free handout for those doing the collecting, provided they didn’t wreck their cars in the process of getting their hands on it. One roadkill-cooking enthusiast quoted in a Bloomberg News story estimates that he saves his family as much as $1,800 annually by collecting elk meat from the roadside:
“People see a dead animal on the side of the road and think it’s not much to look at,” said Matt Kenna, a Durango, Colorado, attorney who has brought roadkill home to his wife and sons for 15 years. “But it’s worth quite a bit of money.”
West Virginia hosts an annual Roadkill Cookoff that draws tens of thousands, including famously adventurous eaters like the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern. In the episode of “Bizarre Foods” in which Zimmern attends the cookoff, however, he mentions that “cooking up actual roadkill is discouraged.” Instead, all recipes must feature meat that “could” have been gathered from the side of the road.
Some roadkill-consumption supporters may be surprising. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gives the practice the OK, though perhaps largely for the purposes of pointing out that no one should be eating meat from the supermarket:
Eating roadkill is healthier for the consumer than meat laden with antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants, as most meat is today. It is also more humane in that animals killed on the road were not castrated, dehorned, or debeaked without anesthesia, did not suffer the trauma and misery of transportation in a crowded truck in all weather extremes, and did not hear the screams and smell the fear of the animals ahead of them on the slaughter line.
Roadkill fare isn’t just a frontiersman-type phenomenon in the Wild American West. Jonathan McGowan, who was raised in farm country in England, explained to the Guardian a couple of years ago why he goes out seeking roadside rabbits, foxes, frogs, and such regularly—and why this is a highly environmentally-friendly activity:
My choice to eat roadkill is rooted in respect for the environment. Most farmed meat sold in shops in the UK has been pumped full of hormones and is a huge burden on the environment. I’ve always been green: I don’t use power unless I need to, I always recycle and I don’t agree with hunting. I only take animals I know have died accidentally. If there was no more roadkill, I’d be a vegetarian.
Students at England’s Bournemouth University have also reportedly been learning in classes how to skin and butcher animals, including roadkill. Of course, they’ve also been cooking and tasting the results. “‘It was strange at first but the meat was delicious,” one student said. “After a few bites I forgot I was eating an animal that had its brains smashed in by a car.”