The Customs at Customs
Published: June 2009
By Lia Mackey
On a layover at Frankfurt Airport, Clifford Pearson decided to pick up a foot-long pepper-crusted salami to take home. He bought the salami in a secured area surrounded by duty-free shops. On his arrival back at New York's JFK Airport, Department of Agriculture officials promptly seized his sausage.
Pearson was angry with the Frankfurt Airport purveyors: "They shouldn't sell goods that travelers can't take home with them." An American customs officer told him the agency had repeatedly advised the shop owners that the suspect sausages were being confiscated, but the advisories were ignored.
"It's all very well to blame us," says Robert Payne, a spokesman for Frankfurt Airport, "but U.S. Customs should inform people, when they're leaving, what they can and cannot bring back."
Mary Benzie agrees. "Check with us first," says the director of passenger clearance at the Department of Agriculture. Foreign airports are outside her authority and under no obligation to post warnings for uninformed shoppers. She suggests that travelers contact customs and agriculture departments before they go, because the list of do's and don'ts is long. For instance, German sausages are a no-no, but Irish sausages pose no problem. Nuts are okay as long as they're not from Asia or parts of Africa; fruit is never a good idea.
Though a sausage seizure may be a nuisance, it doesn't represent a major financial setback. The impounding of expensive, exotic souvenirs will hurt more. Items made from endangered wildlife, including ivory, leopard skin, coral, and tortoiseshell, are all prohibited. You could even end up paying a fine for acquiring gifts your family and friends will never see.
Travelers can get information before their trip from local branches of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Plant Protection and Quarantine Unit, by calling a central hot line (301/734-8645), or by checking out the Web ) or go to the agency's Web page at http://www.customs.ustreas.gov . American consulates abroad may also be helpful.