After a Colorado woman, Crystal Tadlock, was fined $500 (£360) for taking an apple from a transatlantic flight off the aircraft, Simon Calder surveys the many ways to infringe the rules on taking food across borders.
Why was this woman treated so harshly?
She had broken the strict US Customs and Border Protection requirement on biosecurity: “You must declare all food products.” In one sense she got off lightly; the maximum penalty is $10,000. In many cases like this the only sanction is a ticking off, but evidently the authorities have chosen to make an example out of Ms Tadlock’s forbidden fruit.
Why the concern about an apple?
In common with many fresh foods, apples can harbour all manner of agricultural diseases and pests, which can threaten crop production and the livestock industry. From apples, the risks include fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and bitter rot, or larvae left inside the fruit by moths. The rules for bringing apples from France require an American import permit and a French phytosanitary certificate.
The US imposes similar restrictions on many other foods, including all kinds of fruit and vegetables, such as potatoes from western Canada, with even more concern about animal products – for example hard-boiled eggs from Mexico, because of concerns about Exotic Newcastle Disease.
Unused food from flights to the US from abroad is routinely destroyed upon arrival.
Who should have warned her?
Harsh though it may sound, Ms Tadlock should have been aware of the restriction. It may be that Delta Airlines did make a public-address announcement about the ban on taking food into the US, but it may have got lost somewhere amid the blur of warnings about safety and security. But even if that were the case, it’s perfectly clear when you arrive at Minneapolis-St Paul airport, and any other international US arrival point, that fresh agricultural produce is banned.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) puts out amnesty bins where anything absent-mindedly brought from the flight can be discarded. If you walk past them, and the sniffer dogs get agitated, it might signal you are about to get stopped and fined.
Is it just the Americans who penalise for fruit transportation?
No, many other countries around the world have restrictions, even when it seems to be pointless. Crossing the land border between Argentina and Chile in South America, for example, which for thousands of miles has no barrier of any kind, intensive checks for foods are carried out. It also applies if you are just north of there in Quito, Ecuador: the airport hotel made me a picnic box for my early morning flight to the Galapagos, only for some of its contents to be confiscated with a great deal of form-filling and signing what seemed to be an abject confession in Spanish for my misdeed. Happily I escaped a $500 fine.
At other borders, biosecurity rules may be deployed as an informal revenue-raising technique. The Independent’s Sally Newall, editor of IndyBest, was fined $50 crossing from Chile to Bolivia because she was carrying an orange.
Does the UK have strict rules?
It all depends from where you are arriving. The Food Standards Agency takes the view that if you can buy it in a shop in the European Union, and you are not importing commercial quantities, then you can bring it to the UK in your normal luggage (though of course foods such as yoghurt can fall foul of the aviation security restrictions on liquids and gels in hand luggage).
From outside Europe, most foods of animal origin are banned. There are a few exceptions such as frogs’ legs (”only if skin and internal organs are removed”), caviar (up to 125g) and fish (to a maximum of 20kg, or a single fish, whichever is larger).
Which is the toughest country?
Australia is the most hard line. It is an island with some natural barriers and a vast amount of agriculture, so there is a lot to lose. The maximum fine for breaking the 2105 Biosecurity Act is A$420,000 (£230,000), with up to 10 years in prison, though the full weight of the law is unlikely to be applied if you’ve just brought an apple from the plane.
Dried milk, tea and “wooden goods” must all be declared. Many of the questions on the Incoming Passenger Card for Australia are about agricultural issues: besides foods and animal products, one of the questions on the form is, have you been on a farm or in a wilderness area in the last 30 days? Tick that box, and you’ll get questioned about the footwear you were wearing and, last time it happened to me, trample unhappily through a shallow tank of disinfectant.
Even cornflakes and Weetabix must be declared, so if you forget you’ll be regarded as a cereal offender.
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