Opening Statements

Montana legalizes the consumption of roadkill

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Wondering what to do if you come across a dead deer, elk, moose or antelope in the road? Or worse, if you hit one with your car?

If you’re in Montana, you’re in luck. Montana recently joined at least a dozen other states that have legalized the consumption of roadkill. Starting around Thanksgiving, anyone who comes across a dead animal in Montana now can legally toss the roadkill on the grill or stick it in the freezer for later provided a free permit from a state peace officer is obtained within 24 hours of finding the carcass.

Ensuring that such meat doesn’t go wasted is the driving principle behind the new law permitting roadkill consumption, which was introduced by Steve Lavin, a Republican state representative from Kalispell and a Montana Highway Patrol sergeant.

Other states such as Alaska, Georgia and Illinois have similar laws, some allowing primarily charitable organizations like food banks to scoop up roadkill to serve. An earlier version of Montana’s bill would have also allowed consumption of fur-bearing animals such as bobcats, sheep and bears, as well as upland game and migratory birds, but it was pared down because of concerns that people might poach those animals with their cars.

While some argue that roadkill is fresher than meat at the local market, others raise public health concerns about the practice and suggest that peace officers are not qualified to inspect roadkill for safe consumption. Some fear liability problems for soup kitchens that may take advantage of this new law, only to learn the hard way that the meat is tainted.

According to Fred Pritzker, a food safety lawyer from Minneapolis, Montana’s law and others like it are ill-conceived. “Eating an animal killed by blunt-force trauma, with no information about its pre-existing health or provenance and with no information about how long it’s been dead or the conditions in which it’s been held since death, is a prescription for danger,” he says, referring to what he calls “ubiquitous pathogens,” including E. coli, listeria and salmonella. “The longer one waits to dress and safely store once-fresh meat, the unhealthier it becomes.”

Despite good intentions, laws that are particularly targeted to enable charitable organizations to serve roadkill are actually “highly discriminatory,” Pritzker adds. “It essentially says that if you’re poor and dependent on food banks, you should not expect the same level of food safety that the rest of us expect. Think about the risk of harm if the party harvesting the roadkill has no scientific training, has no safety systems, has no clean and safe environment to dress and store the meat. This is an absolute prescription for disaster.”

Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency will regulate the new law, and it stands to be busy. The state’s Department of Transportation reported more than 1,900 wild animal-vehicle crashes in 2011 and it collected more than 7,000 animal carcasses in 2012.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “It’s What’s for Dinner: Montana legalizes the consumption of roadkill.”

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