Montana moves to make roadkill legal to eat: Is 'freeganism' a good idea?

It sounds gross, but roadkill salvage is popular in some parts of the US. Montana is fast-tracking ‘roadkill salvage’ legislation, joining a handful of states where the practice is legal, even encouraged.

By , Staff Writer

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    A small bachelor herd of elk holds up traffic near Gardiner, Mont., in this file photo. Deer killed on Montana roads could be eaten if the governor signs a 'roadkill salvage' bill.
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Montana is set to license the salvage of roadkill for human consumption, formalizing a practice that is already legal in West Virginia and Illinois, though discouraged in other states, including Texas.

Roadkill salvage and consumption remains a fringe activity, mainly practiced by so-called “freegans” and other culinary subcultures. In Alaska, however, those who utilize soup kitchens are likely to have had a taste, since fresh roadkill is regularly given to charities. Interestingly, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which opposes most forms of hunting, has pushed states to adopt “roadkill salvage” legislation so as not to let animals go to waste.

Roadkill salvage has been occurring at least since the 1920s, when animal casualties began to pile up on America's expanding roadways. Many states today take a hands-off approach to the practice. When Tennessee considered a roadkill bill, the proposal was basically laughed out of committee. But Tennessee authorities said no law officer would likely ever charge anybody with “possession of roadkill with intent to eat.”

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The practice also has deep cultural implications, often in the form of negative stereotypes about country folk and rednecks. Yet today, many proponents frame it as a paragon of husbandry ethics that’s tasty and, if carefully inspected, safe.

“If people must eat animal carcasses, roadkill is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket,” Vermonter Paul Opel, who has salvaged roadkill for 30 years, told Food Safety News in 2011.

The Montana measure, which passed the state Senate, 33 to 15 vote, Tuesday and will soon head to the governor’s desk, allows law enforcement to issue roadkill salvage permits for elk, deer, antelope, and moose.

To some, the law is part of a growing movement in America toward “freeganism,” or the consumption of unregulated food ranging from unpasteurized milk to roadkill. Several books have been spawned by the movement, including Sandor Katz’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.”

If the bill is signed by the governor, Montana will join a select number of largely rural states that have formal rules around roadkill salvage. Alaska, for example, uses state troopers to remove the animal, and, if usable, will take it to volunteers who butcher and process the meat so that it can be used by food charities. New York also allows motorists to take home car-struck deer after the motorist is given a tag.

In Wisconsin, 45,000 deer are removed and/or salvaged each year. Nationally, some 1 million animals are roadkilled each day and 1.5 million deer killed by cars each year.

“It really is a sin to waste a good meat,” state Sen. Larry Jent, a Bozeman Democrat, told the Associated Press.

But as the US Congress recently boosted US food inspections after a series of high-profile poisoning cases involving peanuts and spinach, questions are also emerging about the wisdom of licensing roadkill salvage outside of the federal inspection regime.

Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, a Billings Democrat, said police shouldn’t be expected to know how to tell whether a dead animal is safe to eat.

"Despite its good intention, it doesn't pass the smell test for me," Senator Van Dyk said, according to the AP.

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