The recent story of a woman being fined $500 for bringing an apple into the USA, seemed not only harsh, but reminded me of a personal experience. The passenger was travelling on a US airline from Paris to Minneapolis, when she was stopped at the various border checks when you enter the USA. She was found to be carrying an apple, which had been supplied by the Airline (the wrapper apparently had the airline’s logo on it). Upon the discovery of the offending fruit, the border official provided the passenger with a $500 fine, along with loss of her special entry status.
For many reading this story there will no doubt be a universal sense that the actions of the official was perhaps a little disproportionate.
It reminded me of a similar experience I had when I flew from London to Dallas a few years ago.
The flight takes about 10 hours and when we arrived in Dallas, we had to join the reasonably lengthy queue to pass through Homeland Security. Once you pass through that area, you then continue through the US Customs & Border Protection and in particular, US Department of Agriculture checks.
As I was waiting in the queue, a very tall official with a very small dog passed along the line of people waiting. As the security official passed me, he politely asked me to step to one side. I could see that the dog was very excited and I was asked to open my hand luggage and whether I had brought any food from the UK or off the plane. I explained to him that I did not have any food and as I started to open my bag, the dog clearly lost interest and I was told that I could continue through the checks. I joined the end of the queue and thought nothing more of it.
When I reclaimed my bag I then joined the queue for a taxi to take me into downtown Dallas. As I was standing there I put my hand into my jacket pocket and made an interesting discovery! The morning I headed down to Heathrow, I had taken my dog out for a walk and I clearly put some ‘doggy’ treats in my pocket. I had clearly forgotten to take them out of my pocket before I left home. As I stood in the queue waiting for my taxi, with several dog treats in my hand, I realised why the security dog was so interested in me and I pondered what might have happened to me if I had been discovered to have been in possession of the offending items!
Curious about my own incident and what had happened to this woman I decided to research what is or is not allowed to be carried into the USA by passengers. The principal source for information can be found through the US Customs & Borders website. There is a complicated list of permitted items along with a dire warning of the consequence of what could happen if you contravene the regulations. When it came to fruit and vegetables, I clicked on the link that took me to the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service website. On that site,I searched for France (the origin of this lady’s flight). The search result appeared to suggest that an apple from France was approved but the tone of the information seemed to relate to imports by a commercial entity under licence. Not deterred, I then clicked on a link which referred me to legislation. Here you will find the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations where I found a link to information about fruit and vegetables from ‘certain countries in Europe’. Again, the script seems to be talking about the commercial importation of fruit and vegetable, but it is clear that apples are perfectly capable of being transported from France to the USA, subject to regulations and in some cases pre-clearance! But, it still did not give me complete confidence that Passengers would be aware of the implications of accepting an innocent apple from a flight attendant.
I looked further and found the US Customs & Border held specific in formation about what happens if you bring fruit into the USA. On another part of their site it states that you are ‘Required to Declare’ fruit or vegetables along with other foods and plants. The information confirms that some items can be taken into the US from some countries but that they will be subject to inspection, which confirms the information contained in legislation. However, you are required to complete a Customs & Border Protection Form (CBP Declaration Form 6059B) which also requires you to declare if you have visited a farm or other agricultural site. For non-commercial items that are not declared, they advise that on first offence, you can be fined up to $1,000!
I am not sure how me or my dog’s treats would have fared under this process, but I do recall on visits to the USA, being provided with a declaration form and handing it in when I arrived. I suspect many passengers simply go through the motions of completing this form without giving too much thought as to what they bought at that airport shop or indeed what they received in-flight.
It does beg the question; given that the USA applies very strict rules on the importation of food products, shouldn't the flight crew have recognised that the handing out of food items in-flight could bring their passengers into risk of attention from border officials? As a matter of routine should flight-crew provide a ‘friendly’ warning to passengers about the entry requirements and the food they may have retained from the flight? Of course, passengers also have a responsibility to make sure that they fully comply with entry regulations, but to err is human, just like I did with my dog’s treats!