Getting through customs - for food lovers!
For years, many of my food-loving friends and I have hidden our Italian culinary supplies and souvenirs (such as porcini mushrooms, white truffles, hunks of cheese, or Italian vegetable seeds) in our luggage and attempted to sneak past United States customs officers. We never quite knew the rules. No one was strip-searched, but some of us had our cured meats confiscated.
So I was thrilled recently to receive two brochures: one in Italian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called "Advice to Travelers," and another, less detailed one in English, entitled "Know Before You Go" from the U.S. Customs Service. Apparently, Italians need more specific advice than most native English speakers do.
With the aid of these pamphlets, I have learned the following: animal and vegetable products are classified variously as Prohibited, Generally Forbidden, Restricted, Permission Required, Treatment Necessary, or Allowed Entry. My friends will be delighted to find that most of the stuff we have smuggled from Italy is in fact fully legal. For example, all cured cheese aged over two months falls under the Allowed Entry heading. Fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses are excluded, but they aren't easy to travel with anyway. Also clear to carry in are dry foods - rice, beans, roasted coffee, and mushrooms (both dried and fresh, which astonishes me). Walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are okay, but chestnuts and acorns are not. Fish packed commercially in a can or jar is permitted, other forms of conserved fish are restricted.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are prohibited. Most herbal materials are fine. So, the Sicilian wild oregano that I buried in my luggage in a plastic bag was legal after all, as is the fennel pollen I've been vacuum packing. Both look decidedly suspicious. The USDA gives permission for most seeds to be carried through Customs, but not corn, cucumber, melon, pumpkin, squash, or wheat. Truffles, black or white, must be declared, then examined and found free of dirt, so hiding them in scuffed, smelly sneakers or dirty laundry is not advisable. Meat and its by-products (a pretty unromantic way to say salumi) are prohibited, unless they have been "...commercially canned ... hermetically sealed, and can be kept without refrigeration." No, thanks, I'll pass.
Meat usually attracts attention from the Beagle Brigade, the USDA's canine detection team that works major American airports, although something as small as an apple may draw them. An adorable green-jacketed beagle sniffs arriving luggage and, upon detection of suspicious (read delicious) scents, sits next to the aromatic suitcase and looks up sweetly at the bag's owner. The dog's handler then thoughtfully questions the suspect. Illegal items will be confiscated and, in some cases, culprits can be fined.