Be Careful Taking Food Across the U.S./Canada Border

Recently I posted an advisory warning Canadians to be careful about taking common foodstuffs across the border into the U.S.  The reaction, particularly from some RVers and mobile home travellers was animated—some stating that they had been transporting fridges and pantries full of “good Canadian food” to their winter homes in the south for many years and never had a problem.

That’s great.  And in most cases you probably won’t have a problem because the border agent will make a quick decision and consider you no great risk and let you go. Border agents have a lot of discretion.

Others chastised me for not having done my research with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) rules about foods that can be taken and others that are prohibited.

It’s precisely that I have done my homework that I raised the warning, as I do again, that taking foods into the U.S. can be problematic if you don’t know what you’re doing.  And if you assume that just because the food was in your fridge at home or you bought it in a Canadian supermarket it’s OK to carry with you, think again.

The list of foods that are approved and/or prohibited from entry to the U.S. changes frequently and does not always follow generalized guidelines such as “meat is OK, veggies are not.” The listing can be very lengthy and somewhat confusing.  For example: The U.S. CBP advisory issued July 6, 2011 says the following: “We regret that it is necessary to take agricultural items from your baggage. They cannot be brought into the United States because they may carry animal and plant pests and diseases.  Restricted items include meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, soil, and products made from animal and plant products.”  Now that advisory doesn’t say ALL meats or All fruits or vegetables, but it does warn that some will not be admitted.  Thus, you are required to declare any foodstuff you are transporting, and if you don’t, you can be fined.  The CBP states: “The civil penalty for failing to declare agricultural items at U.S. ports of entry will cost first time offenders $300.  The penalty for the second violation goes up to $500.”

In its section on importation of agricultural products from Canada the CBP notes the following: “Fruits and vegetables grown in Canada are generally admissible, if they have labels identifying them as products of Canada.  Fruits and vegetables merely purchased in Canada are not necessarily admissible.” It notes, for example, that “Potatoes from western regions of Canada are currently restricted because of a disease outbreak. While commercial imports are permitted under stringent guidelines, travelers from Canada should avoid bringing raw potatoes with them into the U.S.

“Food products from Canada, including pet food and fresh (frozen or chilled), cooked, canned or otherwise processed products containing beef, veal, bison, and cervid (e.g., deer, elk, moose, caribou etc) are now permitted from Canada in passenger baggage.  Products containing sheep, lamb, or goat will not be allowed entry.”

Consider cheese: “Solid cheese (hard or semi-soft, that does not contain meat), butter, butter oil, and cultured milk products such as yogurt and sour cream are not restricted. Feta cheese, Brie, Camembert, cheese in brine, Mozzarella and Buffalo Mozzarella are permissable (USDA Animal Product Manual, Tabel 3-14-6). Cheese in liquid (such as cottage cheese or ricotta cheese) and cheese that pours like heavy cream are not admissible from countries affected by foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Cheese containing meat is not admissible depending on the country of origin.”

Now, do you really know where your potatoes, apples, meat products, cheese, etc. came from?  Are they all labelled? Are you prepared to undergo a customs “inspection” to prove the lunch you’re carrying meets government guidelines?

If that’s important to you, then by all means check the CBP website, or for even more detail the site, to check out if the foods you are carrying are on the approved list. And if you choose to carry foods with you, that’s fine too: but what is not negotiable is that you must declare the foods you are carrying to the border agents, and you should not “forget” about some foods sitting in your picnic hamper in the trunk.

My initial post on this subject was meant as an admonition that carrying food into the U.S. is subject to restriction and just because you bought it in a Canadian supermarket or had it sitting in your fridge does not mean it’s admissible. If you get that one border agent who’s a stickler for detail, or who argued with his wife before leaving for work that day, you may regret taking that mango with you.

My point was that for many of us, certainly me, it’s a lot easier to be able to honestly tell the border agent that you are carrying no food with you and be done with it.


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