Q: I love to bring food back from my trips abroad. What are the restrictions? —Alexander Bauman, Lexington, Mass.
A: The lure of forbidden fruit is strong—as is the authority of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to confiscate it once you hit American soil. Why so stringent? The agency cites the example of a Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak in California in the 1980’s that cost the state and federal government $100 million to contain. It started with a single traveler bringing in a piece of contaminated food. Add to that the threats of hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease, avian and swine flu, and exotic beetle infestations, which can devastate livestock and crops, and you get a sense of why caution is necessary.
That said, there are still plenty of foods that you can carry home from your travels. You just need to be aware of the rules, which can be tricky—and fluid. Restrictions change as disease outbreaks occur. Look for updates on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service websites. And always declare your food: trying to bring in undeclared prohibited items can result in a fine of $300 for a first offense and more for repeat offenders.
Cheese and Milk Products: Hard and soft, pasteurized and unpasteurized cheeses are generally acceptable—that includes everything from Camembert and Brie to feta and mozzarella, even in brine. Nonsolid cheeses, such as ricotta and cottage cheese, pose problems, unless you’re a registered importer. Yogurt and butter are unrestricted.
Meat and Seafood: Unfortunately, almost anything containing meat products is off limits. This includes most fresh and refrigerated meats, cured and dried ones (salami, sausage, and prosciutto, sigh), and even dried soups and bouillons. (Some pork products are allowable from Spain and Italy, but—before you grab that chorizo—require official certification from the country’s health inspectors.) Pâté and foie gras in unopened hermetically sealed containers can usually be brought into the country. At press time, beef and pork products were allowable from Australia, Canada, Fiji, Iceland, and New Zealand with proof of origin (such as a grocery-store receipt or a label indicating where they came from). Seafood, including fresh, dried, canned, and smoked fish, is generally permitted.
Fruits and Vegetables: You need an official permit for most fresh fruit and vegetables, though Canadian produce is generally exempt, once again, with proof of origin. (Check the USDA’s Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements Database to see what can be carried onto U.S. soil.) Dried fruits, herbs, and spices (except seed-based ones) are by and large okay.
Pantry Items: Good news: oils, vinegars, mustards, canned or jarred meatless sauces, pickles, honey (without honeycombs), jams, baked goods, noodles, roasted nuts, candy, and chocolate are all basically unrestricted.
Alcohol: Anything less than a liter is generally permitted duty-free. Thanks to the 21st Amendment, it’s up to each state to determine how much alcohol you can carry. Most states limit you to a “reasonable” amount for personal use. If you’re from a control state, however, check with the local alcohol board to see if there are restrictions. Utah, for example, sets a two-liter limit. For the record: absinthe (anything bearing the brand name Absinthe, containing thujone, or decorated with artwork “project[ing] images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects”) is not allowed in the States.