Agricultural and Food Products Cause Headaches at Customs

An inside look at what food products you can, and can't, bring back from vacation

A woman at U.S. Customs.

Going through U.S. Customs after a relaxing trip abroad can be a hassle. Turns out, it's not such a walk in the park for U.S. Customs screeners either — especially those dealing with foreign food and agricultural products. (Food-sniffing beagle Izzy must have it the hardest.)

USA Today took a behind-the-scenes look at what foods really caused the most problems at U.S. Customs — and it's a long list. Most often, it's fruits, veggies, and meats (like pork) that's detained the most; some days, it's cow legs, porcupines, and goat heads. (How do you pack that, exactly?) 

Last year, screeners took more than 825,000 food and agricultural products from travelers to be quarantined. Each day, nearly 500 pounds of declared "bad" food is destroyed. The reason screeners must be so stringent in what they restrict? According to the article, the mangoes or oranges you bring home could be carriers for animal diseases and other illnesses. No one knows just how many animal and plant diseases are brought into the country from abroad, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the economic damage could total $1 billion each year.

The best way to avoid a large fine? Declare everything, screeners say. While the lists of OK foods to bring back change constantly (even the screeners' manuals are constantly updated), there are some generally agreed upon foods to leave back at the hotel. The list of what's OK to bring back (and must be declared): condiments, hand-cured cheese, fish products, bakery goods, powdered drinks, and canned goods (without meat or poultry). On the naughty list: most kinds of meat (whether fresh, chilled, dried, or frozen), products with raw egg, rice, pork products from Mexico, and dried soup mix with meat.