July 6, 2006


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Are your edible souvenirs kosher?
Check state law before you pack the foie gras
By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

Jeff Paige brought back spices he found in a 55-gallon drum found at an Italian market.

Woody Hambleton put the marzipan and chocolate in his suitcase, but sent the sausage by mail.

Steven Clutter carried back duffle bags filled with rare wine bottles wrapped in newspaper and pearly sugar.

Michael Dussault says he is law-abiding and hasn’t ever tucked any food items into his suitcase, but if he could, his wish list includes exotic fruits.

Travel is at its peak in the summer and if you are a foodie, before you leave the country you should know the rules about what you can and cannot bring back. Otherwise you may be able to keep the dried truffles but find yourself surrendering the salami to the customs agent.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rules before you travel. An updated brochure is available at cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg/.

The rules change fast due to outbreaks and new data, so it is best to know what is “enterable” before you find yourself standing in that quaint shop wondering if the new Camembert can come home with you.

While the CBP enforces the rules, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues them. Many of the regulations are set in place to protect us from contagions like hand-foot and mouth disease and the avian flu. The DOA also is working hard to prevent pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly from making their way here.

“There is always so much that I want to bring home with me, but I just know that a lot of it is really off limits,” said Jeff Paige, chef/ owner of Cotton.

When Paige traveled to Italy, he carefully brought back olive oil and the market spices, and from Germany, chocolate. He tucked his finds in his suitcase and hoped for the best.

Fortunately for Paige, his items were not contraband. The basic rule of thumb for customs agents is that because there is such a large grey area, if they question it, they are supposed to take it.

Meats, even vacuum-packed, are a no. Few canned meats are allowed, depending on the country of origin, but canned poultry is never a good idea. Foie gras falls into the grey area and will likely be seized.

Produce can harbor all kinds of insects and disease, making it a red flag at the gate. While some fresh produce is admissible, you should check right before you travel.

Woody Hambleton, chef at The Barley House in Concord, had oranges he packed as a snack seized by the Mexican customs agents. They did not want fruit from the States in their country.

When returning to the U.S., he brought back saffron, Kahlua and tequila.

“All that stuff is real cheap there,” he said.

Hambleton lived in Germany for a number of years and on trips to the states he would pack marzipan and chocolate in his suitcase.

The questionable stuff, like jaegerwurst, schnitzel and canned soups, he sent discreetly by mail.

One time, he drove across the Canadian-U.S. border with a whole salmon on ice in the back seat of his car. When stopped, he was able to keep the fish because he had caught it sport fishing in Quebec.

“Some of these trips were a long time ago. I bet it is even more strict now,” Hambleton said.

Cheese is another big risk. Raw-milk cheeses may contain high pH, which harbors the bacteria that causes hand-foot and mouth disease.

“I would love to bring back a big, horrendous-smelling wheel of cheese from Montreal, but I don’t know if it would be allowed,” said Matt Provencher, chef at Surf in Nashua.

While you are allowed to bring cheese for personal consumption, be prepared for it to be seized at the customs agent’s discretion.

Bottled items, such as olive oil, vinegar, honey and mustard are free to enter the states. But rice, it depends on the country of origin. If it is boxed and sealed and from Italy, it is probably okay, but a bag from India will likely be seized as it could contain insects.

Likewise for greenery. Plants, such as herbs or clippings of grapevine are not allowed and even baskets that appear to be woven with fresh materials will likely be seized.

And remember, if you hide something in your suitcase, even if it is permitted, it is a crime. Hiding is demonstrating intent to break the law and could end you up with a hefty fine.

Steven Clutter, chef at the Hanover Street Chophouse once traveled back from Burgundy, France with two large duffle bags filled with wine. Wrapped in newspaper, it was tough to hide passing through JFK.

“I was walking, all weighed down by the wine and everyone noticing the clinking sound of the bottles,” he said.

Clutter declared all the wine and happily enjoyed it at home.

While many of the regulations are federal, it is also best to check the regulations of the state in which you will be reentering the US. For many New Hampshire travelers reentry happens at Logan Airport in Massachusetts.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com  

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