Customs seizes 4,300 items each day from unsuspecting travelers, so read up on their regulations before jaunting off on vacation or they’ll seize your tasty goat when you return. Customs regulations aren’t as arbitrary as they seem, but they can’t be deciphered by common sense alone.
They’re concerned with protecting the U.S. food supply. Contaminated meat can put U.S. livestock at risk of mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, swine fever, avian flu and other illnesses that can enter the food supply through garbage feeding and other means. Plants may harbor pests that could decimate whole crops.
So the regulations are based on the disease conditions in the country the product is from. Beef in any form is not allowed from Europe, Oman or Israel, all classified as areas with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Canned beef bulgogi from Korea, however, is fine. Korea is classified as free of mad cow.
Spain and Italy are recognized as countries with swine disease, so in general no ham because curing methods don’t always kill the disease. Parts of France have been designated as bird flu zones, so no foie gras.
So what does this mean for you?
Fungus routed from the ground by pigs in France? Load up. Basil plant from your grandmother’s garden in Italy? Pack it up (just shake off the soil)! Kangaroo jerky from Australia? Bon appetit.
But don’t even think about canned corned beef from Dublin or smoky, Spanish chorizo. And foie gras, even cooked and canned? At your peril.
In general, baked goods, candy and chocolate are all fine to bring into the U.S. Condiments — oil, vinegar, mustard, pickles, syrups, honey, jelly — also fine.
Cheese is trickier, with hard varieties such as Parmesan and cheddar allowed, but soft, fresh or runny varieties, such as Brie, burrata and ricotta — big no-nos.
Fruits and vegetables generally are prohibited or require special certificates, unless you can prove they were grown in and came directly from Canada. Except potatoes. No Canadian potatoes, which have suffered disease outbreaks.
Fresh meat generally is forbidden. No steaks, no chops, no sausage. Unless it comes from New Zealand. Or is a wild bison. From Canada. That you killed yourself (keep your hunting permit with your passport.)
Cured meats — that’s your Serrano, Parma and Iberico hams, plus Hungarian salami and other delicacies — are almost always forbidden. Unless they come from particular, preapproved production facilities.
Check with customs before leaving so your potential contraband doesn’t earn you a strict talking-to from concerned customs agents. The only thing you can know for certain is that the agents won’t be shocked by whatever you’re trying to bring back.
For Maurine Bell, port veterinarian at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport during the 1990s, that would be the whole goat she once found stuffed in a passenger’s luggage.
“The gentleman was from Greece and he was bringing it in for his daughter’s wedding,” she says. “We took the goat. And the suitcase, too.”
Think twice before stuffing your suitcase with prosciutto [USA Today]
Know Before You Go – Regulations for U.S. Residents (PDF) [U.S. Customs and Border Protection]