What foods are you allowed to bring into the U.S.? It can be a mystery

by Karen Fawcett on July 15, 2011

OK, we’re supposed to be experts on travel issues but there are times that rules and regulations can leave even pros baffled. Is it because it’s a changing playing field? What foods you can bring into the US from overseas?

There’s a lot of controversy over this issue. This is an interesting and informative site . But, I’m beginning to believe nothing is set in stone, except (possibly) a lot depends on which side of the bed the inspector got up.

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is, even if you buy cheese at a French airport, and tell the sale person you’re U.S. bound, and are guaranteed the package will make it through customs when property wrapped, don’t accept it as gospel. Ditto for caviar. Between the beagle brigade and the inspectors, I’ve seen some lovely food items left in the inspection area.

It’s hard to watch grown people cry over cans of foie Gras and vacuum packages of ham being confiscated. Are you allowed to bring croissants into the US? My guess would be yes based on this list provided by the CBC.

Travelers definitely must take precautions when returning from adventure travel or farm tours, etc. Contact your tour operator for information about possible exposure to diseases the U.S. may not have. Find out what needs to be done before leaving and returning.

I must plead guilty. I never considered the house we owned in Provence (surrounded by vineyards) to be farmland and noted nothing on my customs declarations. Was it? I’m still not sure.

If you’re subjected to a secondary scanning, Kenneth Larson, a retired aerospace contracts manager said, “Anything with aluminum foil wrapping around it that sets off a metal detector, won’t make it. The scanner does not have the time to open, examine and analyze it. So, it hits the garbage bin.”

Once you’ve stood in line and opened every suitcase and then had them go through the scanner (again), bringing in food becomes substantially less appetizing. I had this pleasure when I was traveling with my cat and brought a sealed foil package of food in her carrier.

If you don’t declare agricultural items and are found out, you’re liable for a $1,000 to $50,000 fine. Do you have to declare candy, etc. that are prepackaged in the original manufacturer’s wrapping? People have been told no but it’s not 100% clear.

After doing substantial research, my conclusion is that getting through customs with food products is a moving target since the rules seem to change frequently.

If you have any insights, please share them. If you’ve had items confiscated, what were they? Do you always fess up about the wedge of runny cheese you’re bringing home as a souvenir of your trip? It tastes so much better in the U.S.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Photo courtesy U.S. Customs Service, photographer James R. Tourtellotte

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  • Matthew in NYC

    I have brought different foodstuffs into the USA, but I am guessing that growing up in Australia it’s been woven into my DNA to avoid trying to bring in processed meats and dairy. I’ve only brought in stuff that is difficult or expensive to buy here: Vegemite, loose leaf tea, Australian marmalade. Mostly I don’t bother because it’s less trouble to buy it in the USA. One time I came back through SFO, having declared absolutely everything and being asked by the quarantine officer what I had, I was about to go through the list when one of his colleagues piped up “He’s come in from Australia” at which point I was waved through.  This suggests that every disease likely to come in from Australia is already endemic in the US. However, when in doubt – declare it. If you’re honest on your declaration, you’re more likely to be able to keep what you’ve brought with you.

  • Frank

    I recently had a layover in SJU. (San Juan).  Upon going through security, my coworker had her Mango confiscated, TSA saying, it couldnt be brought into the USA.  Meanwhile, I went through the exact same line and MY bunch of banana’s went through without incident.  Go figure.

  • Ngbmd

    I have seen the confiscated food being enjoyed in the office cafeteria!

  • Marilyn

    Because our flight from Cairo was departing soon after midnight and we would not be there for the breakfast in the morning, our hotel gave us lunch boxes to carry with us.  I ate some of it while waiting at the airport and left some behind because I didn’t want to carry it.  But I stuck the apple in my purse for later and just forgot about it.  It was discovered at JFK and confiscated.  It looked like a good apple so I hope someone enjoyed it.  That is the only food I have ever had taken from me, but I suspect similar things happen all the time–food put away for a snack and then forgotten about.

  • SoBeSparky

    Entomology is a specialized science, like most studies of live things. What will be harbored on a banana or a mango are unclear to us, but much clearer to experts.

    My rule of thumb traveling back and forth between the USA and China several dozen times is the more processed and factory wrapped an item, the easier it is to get into the U.S., remembering of course, substances banned for other reasons than bugs such as endangered species.

    The rule of “for personal use” is always in effect, like everything in your baggage. If you are importing for commercial trade, then you are in the wrong line.   You might think you have a personal-use quantity, but if it is a large supply, customs will differ with you.   

    Generally speaking (yes, so many entomological exceptions) when it is in a box or bag, sealed with poly, foil or  cellophane, then it most likely has been subjected to cooking or heat processing. If something is raw or fresh, then the yellow flag goes up. The more connected with Mad Cow disease, milk products, farm soils on your shoes, etc., the less it will be allowed in.

    Since there are so many tropical pests, anything live and unprocessed from the tropics is suspect.
     

  • Sarah

    How true! I just traveled  from Dublin to SFO and unaware that I would officially ‘enter’ the US at DUB, I had my picnic for the flight stashed in my carry-on. All my goodies (smoked salmon, fruit, cheese) were confiscated and of course, I remain on the immigration meat smuggler’s list. uuuurrrrgh.
     DUB changed their policy and procedure in January, installed new security equipment and now there’s no time for Duty Free shopping.. The good news – once you’re on the plane, you’re a domestic passenger and enter the US as such. I guess it’s better to go thru all of that in Dublin than at JFK.

  • Linda

    Once when I was flying for Pan Am, I brought back (from Spain) a bottle of my favorite brandy.  The Customs agent objected and told me he’d have to take it.  I grabbed it just before he did, uncorked it and poured it down the drinking fountain behind me!  If I couldn’t have it, neither could they……

  • Linda

    Once when I was flying for Pan Am, I brought back (from Spain) a bottle of my favorite brandy.  The Customs agent objected and told me he’d have to take it.  I grabbed it just before he did, uncorked it and poured it down the drinking fountain behind me!  If I couldn’t have it, neither could they……

  • Wiseword

    Why is TSA interested in mangoes?  An exploding mango might be messy but not life-threatening.

  • Wiseword

    Why is TSA interested in mangoes?  An exploding mango might be messy but not life-threatening.

  • Ken

    Its not TSA, its CUSTOMS.  BIG difference

  • Frank

    GOOD Question, Wiseword.  There was NO CUSTOMS involved from SJU to the United States.  It was a security, the security line where it happened.

  • MeanMeosh

    I’ve been told that anything processed or dried is OK – beef jerky, dried fruit in a bag, loose tea in a can, boxed juice, etc..  As an aside, for flights coming to Chicago from Delhi, the customs officers are REALLY on the lookout for mangoes during mango season in India.  Apparently people have a habit of trying to sneak bags of fresh mangoes in their luggage (not that I can blame them – Indian mangoes are delicious). 

    When in doubt – write it down on your customs declaration.  Worst thing that happens in that case is the officer asks you to see it, and tells you to throw it away.  Of course, you might want to think twice about bringing in something questionable that you can’t afford to part with.  There’s always the international grocery store or mail order, after all.

  • MeanMeosh

    I can tell you from experience, a mango gone bad is bad news!  You’re going to be spending a lot of time cleaning up that mess.

    My guess is the TSA agent was either misinformed, or it was an agricultural officer, not TSA.  You see those flying back from Hawai’i.  They’re looking for folks trying to take macadamia nuts and guavas back to the mainland.  I don’t know, maybe Puerto Rican mangoes are similarly quarantined on the mainland.

  • Anonymous

    I once realized I still had a dragonfruit in my carryon coming back to the US from Taipei. Not wanting to waste it (as they’re expensive over here when you can find them at all), I ate it between the landing gate and the customs line… slightly messy, but delicious.

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