Last month, a passenger traveling from Indonesia to Darwin Airport in Australia’s Northern Territory was fined $1,874 after two egg and beef sausage McMuffins – along with a ham croissant – were found in his luggage. (Australian authorities had imposed strict new biosecurity measures on all arrivals after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Indonesian cattle.) In the past year alone, US border officials have fined passengers for bringing a wide range of undeclared food items in their luggage, including balut eggs, pork bologna and turkey ham. Border officials conducted “630,150 positive passenger inspections” in 2021, according to fiscal year statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and issued thousands of penalties and violations to travelers who have not declared prohibited agricultural items. Ports of entry at U.S. air, sea, and land borders can result in fines and penalties of up to $10,000, according to CBP.
Here’s what you need to know before importing food into the United States.
Why are certain foods not allowed?
Travelers bringing food to the United States can inadvertently introduce foreign pests and foodborne illnesses into the country, which can have a devastating effect on agriculture and the environment. And a pest or disease outbreak could affect more than just farmers. It also means higher grocery bills and shortages of certain food items for consumers.
Last year, border officials discovered 264 pests at U.S. ports of entry, a slightly higher number than the 250 found the previous year. Among the pests intercepted last year was a Saunders 1850 moth larva found in pineapples in Costa Rica. The larvae feed on plants and legumes and are considered an invasive pest mainly found in the Amazon rainforest. Introducing it into the U.S. ecosystem could be detrimental to the agriculture industry, CBP said.
“We work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animals, and Health Inspection Services to prevent the introduction of plant pests and exotic animal diseases,” a CBP spokesperson told CNN. .
Which food products are not allowed in the country?
Most meat, poultry, milk, and egg products are either banned or restricted in the United States, with rules depending on the country of origin and the livestock diseases prevalent in the region.
The United States Department of Agriculture prohibits animal and bird products from countries with reported cases of livestock diseases, such as mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, avian flu, and swine fever . The USDA provides a link where travelers can check for common animal diseases in specific countries. Sometimes there are gray areas. Pork products from Mexico are banned, for example, but a small amount for personal use – such as a ham sandwich – may be allowed at land borders if the meat is well cooked.
What food items can you bring?
A long list of food products is permitted in the United States, including condiments, cooking oils, bread, cookies, crackers, cakes, cereals, packaged tea, and other cooked and processed products. CBP provides a list of permitted items on its website. But there’s a catch: If a traveler brings more than 50 pounds of an item, it’s considered a commercial shipment and must undergo additional steps, including additional security inspections. And every farm food product must be declared on US Customs forms, so inspectors can examine them and make sure they don’t contain harmful foreign pests or diseases. “The declaration must cover all items carried in checked baggage, carry-on baggage, or in a vehicle,” the CBP website states.
Can you bring fruits or vegetables?
The short answer is no.
Almost all fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are banned from entering the United States due to pest and disease risks, some of which can survive freezing temperatures, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Even fruit and vegetable snacks provided on an airplane or cruise ship should be skipped, says Lucero Hernandez of the Federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Travelers crossing a land border into the United States from Canada may bring fresh fruits and vegetables, as long as they were grown in Canada. But they need proof that the product is free of soil, pests and disease, and that it was grown in Canada, not just sold there, the USDA says.
And in all cases, travelers coming to the United States should keep receipts and original packaging to prove the country of origin of food items, according to CBP.
What happens if you bring prohibited items?
Travelers who declare agricultural products in their luggage do not face penalties, even if an inspector concludes that the items are not allowed to enter the country, according to the USDA. In such cases, the food is destroyed.
“An apple or snack that may be brought by mistake will not always constitute a significant incident,” the CBP spokesperson explained of an inadvertent failure to declare a food item. “However, attempting to bring prohibited items would cause delays for travelers and could result in a fine.”
“Failure to declare a prohibited food may result in the issuance of a civil penalty,” the spokesperson added.
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