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Food Safety Issues at the Border

“Disease knows no boundaries and borders are porous to disease” [1]

Much has been written about food safety issues related to the increasing sales of imported food in this country.  What about the individual traveler, however, who is coming back to the United States, and wants to share a rare French cheese, or a homemade Italian salami, with family and friends?  What restrictions, if any, apply when that traveler hits the US border?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) currently collects import duties, carries out immigration inspection and clearance of passengers, and carries out inspection and clearance of agricultural items (in commercial and passenger areas) at U.S. ports of entry. On March 1, 2003, approximately seven years ago, CBP combined the inspectional work forces and border authorities of the U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Accordingly, it is CBP personnel who are charged with inspecting everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry.

On a typical day, CBP welcomes more than 1.1 million international travelers into the United States at land, air, and sea ports.  They can ask if you are bringing anything back to the U.S., and they have the legal authority to also search your baggage, just in case.[2]

CBP has the authority to take any agricultural items from your baggage. Agricultural items cannot be brought into the United States because they may carry animal and plant pests and diseases. Some of these organisms are highly contagious animal diseases that could cause severe economic damage and losses in production, which would mean increased costs for meat and dairy products. Restricted items generally include meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, soil, and products made from animal or plant materials.

All travelers entering the United States are required to declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, animals, and plant and animal products (including soup or soup products) they may be carrying. The declaration must cover all items carried in checked baggage, carry-on luggage, or in a vehicle.[2]

Upon examination of plants, animal products, and associated items, CBP agriculture specialists at the ports of entry will determine if these items meet the entry requirements of the United States.

Prohibited items that are not declared by passengers are confiscated and disposed of by CBP agriculture specialists. Civil penalties may be assessed for violations and may range up to $1,000 for a first-time offense. Depending on whether the confiscated, undeclared items are intentionally concealed, or determined to be for commercial use, civil penalties may be assessed as high as $50,000 for individuals.[2]

Many people complain that they see similar products on the shelves in their grocery stores in the U.S. so they don’t know why they can’t bring them back in their luggage. The reason is that commercial imports (what ends up on the grocery shelves) go through very extensive permitting and inspection procedures that are not available to the traveler who is buying something for their own use.[3]

Also, many duty-free shops in foreign counties offer animal food products for sale. Just because they are offered for sale in a duty-free shop does not mean the goods are admissible into the U.S.

General List of Approved Products:

Aloe Vera (above ground parts) 

Bat nut or devil pod (Trapa bicornis) 

Breads, cakes, cookies, and other bakery goods 
Cannonball fruit 

Chinese water chestnut 

Coffee (roasted beans only) 


*Flower bulbs 

Fruits, canned 

Garlic cloves (peeled) 

Lily bulbs (Lilium spp.) for planting

Maguey leaf 



Nuts (roasted only) 

Palm hearts (peeled) 

Sauces, canned or processed 


*Seeds for planting or consumption

Shamrocks leaves without roots or soil 

St. John’s Bread 

Singhara nut (Trapa bispinosa) 

Tamarind bean pod 


Vegetables, canned or processed 

Water chestnut (Trapa natans)

*Check with the consulate or agricultural office in the country of origin to confirm that your item is allowed. A phytosanitary certificate is required for propagative material. Pre-departure inspection is required for passengers traveling from Hawaii to the mainland, Puerto Rico to the mainland, and from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the mainland.

Many products grown in Canada or Mexico are allowed to enter the United States. This includes most vegetables and many fruits; however, seed potatoes from Canada currently require a permit. Additionally, stone fruit, apples, mangoes, oranges, guavas, sopote, cherimoya and sweet limes from Mexico require a permit.  [2]     


Each U.S. citizen over the age of 21 is allowed to bring into the country up to one liter (33.8 fluid ounces) of alcoholic beverages, for personal use or for a gift, without having to pay duty and tax.  The importation of absinthe is subject to interesting special U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations: the absinthe content must be “thujone-free” (that is, it must contain less than 100 parts per million of thujone); the term “absinthe” cannot be the brand name; the term “absinthe” cannot stand alone on the label; and the artwork and/or graphics cannot project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects. Absinthe imported in violation of these regulations is subject to seizure.

Fruits, Vegetables, and Plants:

Every single plant or plant product, including handicraft items made with straw, must be declared to the CBP officer and must be presented for CBP inspection, no matter how free of pests it appears to be.

Depending on the country of origin, some fruits, vegetables, and plants may be brought into the United States without advance permission, provided they are declared, inspected, and found free of pests.

Many fruits and vegetables, however, are prohibited from entering the United States or require either an import permit (for commercial importers) or a phytosanitary certificate from the country of origin (a phytosanitary certificate is a document often required by many states and foreign countries for the import of nonprocessed plant products).  An example of problems imported fruits and vegetables can cause is the Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak during the 1980s.  The outbreak cost the state of California and the federal government approximately $100 million to get rid of the pest.  The likely cause of the outbreak was one traveler who brought home one contaminated piece of fruit.[5]           

Some plants, cuttings, and seeds that are capable of propagation, unprocessed plant products, and certain endangered species are allowed into the U.S. but require import permits and other documents; some are prohibited entirely. Threatened or endangered species that are permitted must have export permits from the country of origin. Plant and plant product permits include plants for planting, such as nursery stock, and small lots of seed; plant products such as fruits and vegetables, timber, cotton and cut flowers; protected plants and plant products such as orchids, and threatened and endangered plant species; transit permits to ship regulated articles into, through, and out of the U.S.; and departmental permits to import prohibited plant materials for research.[6]

Meat and Animal Products and Byproducts:

Fresh, dried, or canned meats and meat byproducts are prohibited entry into the United States from most foreign countries because of the continuing threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), bovine s
pongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), and other animal diseases.  If meat from restricted countries is used in preparing a product (e.g., beef broth), the product is usually prohibited. Animal hunting trophies, game animal carcasses, and hides are severely restricted.[2]

Because regulations concerning meat and meat byproducts change frequently, travelers should contact the consulate or local agricultural office in the country of origin for up-to-date information on the disease status of that country.  All decisions about the admissibility of animal products are dependent on disease conditions in their country of origin or the country where the products were processed and/or packaged. Because disease conditions can change at a moment’s notice, travelers who purchase such goods must be prepared for the fact that the goods may be confiscated during customs clearance. APHIS, which regulates meats and meat products as well as fruits and vegetables, can be contacted for more information on importing meats.[2]

Other reasons that such products might be confiscated is if the traveler fails to declare them–in which case they are automatically seized–or the inability of the CBP officer to determine the country of origin or the nature of the product being presented for inspection. Labels on goods purchased overseas are rarely in English, and if the officer can’t tell what the ingredients are through pictures or similar names (i.e. porc, poullet, etc.) then they won’t be allowed entry.  For this same reason, food items without any labels are also inadmissible.[3]

The complex nature of these regulations applicable to the popular meat products below is apparent:
•    Cured Bacon–Unless it is from Canada, or from two specifically approved producers allowed to sell certified pork products in duty free shops in Dublin and Shannon Airports–not allowed
•    Sausage
–not allowed
•    Salami and other cured deli products
–not allowed
•    Prosciutto
–not allowed
•    Pate
–If cooked and in a hermetically sealed container, maybe–otherwise, not allowed
•    Fois Gras
–If cooked and in a hermetically sealed container, maybe–otherwise, not allowed
•    Parma, Iberian or Serrano hams
–Only certain plants are certified exporters, and the hams must be accompanied by certificates and seals–otherwise, not allowed
•    Bouillon Cubes and Dry Soup Mixes
–Beef or other ruminant-based (goat, sheep, etc.) bouillon products are not admissible if from a BSE (Mad Cow) country–(Basically, none from Europe or European territories such as Martinique or British Virgin Islands). No poultry-based bouillon from Asia, which has Highly Pathogenic Avian influenza. [3]

Foods from Canada:

Fruits and vegetables grown in Canada are generally admissible, if they have labels identifying them as products of Canada. Fruits and vegetables purchased in Canada, but grown elsewhere, are not necessarily admissible, ie. citrus or tropical fruits such as mangoes, which clearly were not grown in Canada because it does not have a climate that supports those crops.

The Department of Agriculture has recently relaxed rules for travelers arriving from Canada with food products involving some meat products. Beef and game products are now allowed entry. This includes frozen, cooked, canned, or otherwise processed beef, veal, venison, elk, bison, etc. Hunter-harvested game, including deer, moose, wild sheep, goats and bison is admissible from Canada for the traveler’s personal use if accompanied with a hunting license, tag or equivalent permit.  Meat products from domestic lamb, sheep and goats are otherwise still prohibited entry from Canada.  [7]

Additional resources:

If you have any questions about CBP procedures, requirements, or policies regarding travelers, please contact:

Customer Service Center 
Office of Public Affairs 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20229 
(877) 227-5511

For further information:

The CBP Web site, www.cbp.gov, contains a wealth of information on both import and export regulations and requirements for many items and commodities. From the site’s home page, click on “Questions” and search the database for answers on a specific topic, or click on the “Imports”, “Exports” or “Travel” section for detailed information.

APHIS-PPQ Permit Unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture, can provide information about import requirements and permits for plants, plant parts, fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural items. Call the unit at (301) 734-8645, or visit the Web at Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.[2]


1.  Kemel, W., “Health dilemma at the borders: a call for global action”.  Proceedings of the 34th Session of the WHO Advisory Committee on Health Research; Geneva, Switzerland, October 1996.

2.  “Bringing Agricultural Products into the United States”, Travel Advisories, US Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov, last revised 7/02/2008.

3.  “Can I bring any meat, poultry or pork products into the US?”  Answers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov, last updated 1/12/ 2010.

4.  “Absinthe (Alcohol)”, Prohibited and Restricted Items, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov.

5.  “Fruits and Vegetables”, Prohibited and Restricted Items, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov.

6.  “Plants and Seeds”, Prohibited and Restricted Items, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov.

7.  “What food can I bring into the US?” Answers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at www.cbp.gov, last updated 1/28/ 2010.

© Food Safety News
  • CBP needs to modernize its rules. Being prevented to bring an organic apple in the US is pathetic.
    Wait, what about the birds and wild animals which cross the US/Mexico border with plenty of deceases?!