Warning for Snowbirds: Bringing Food from the US into Canada?

March is the month most snowbirds make their way home, though given the horrid weather still situated over most of Canada, there will be a few latecomers to the south. If you’re among them, take extra care in calculating the time you have spent in the US in the past 12 months, and make sure you have not exceeded the time the US Customs and Border Protection agent allowed you when entering the country last year.

Remember that US and Canadian border agencies now share data about border crossings and that means the US CBP knows not only when you entered the US last year, but when you exited as well.

But that’s not all you need to keep in mind.

If you have spent several months in Florida, South Texas, California, or any other sunny location, you have very likely accumulated a lot of foodstuffs, and you just can’t toss these out: they cost you money.

Well, if you won’t toss them, or give them away to friends or family staying behind, they could cost you a lot more: like a $10,000 fine for not reporting them to border agents.

Related: As Border Controls Tighten Up, Know the Limits

I have heard many snowbird stories about border agents on either side being so “unreasonable” as to confiscate apples, bags of onions, even citrus from RVs and car trunks because they weren’t reported by vehicle drivers.

But because the rules about which foods are acceptable for entry, and which are not, are quite complicated and can change overnight, I suggest one rule for all snowbirds (and other Canadian travellers as well): If it’s edible, report it. No exceptions.   

Here’s a sampling of what Canadian Border Agency Services (CBAS) allow at this moment—but it may change next week:

  • Baked goods and candies up to 20 kilograms per person (but no goods containing meat);
  • Animal fat or suet (up to 20 kg per person);
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, butter up to 20 kg pp), but quantities in excess of $20 pp (this is correct) may be subject to high duty;
  • Fish and seafood (except for puffer fish or Chinese mitten crab);
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables—one bag up to four kg of US number one potatoes per person, and the bag must be commercially packaged (forget about the spuds given to you fresh out of the ground by your farmer relatives, and there are also restrictions on some fresh fruits and veggies grown in California, Idaho, Oregon, or Washington);
  • And if you live in BC, some restrictions exist on bringing in fresh apples, stone fruit (like peaches), and potatoes;
  • Most infant formulas are OK, so long as they are sealed and commercially packaged;
  • Meat and poultry products—e.g., jerky, sausages, deli meats and patties, foie gras—but you must have proof of the country of origin, and the amount may not exceed 20 kg pp;
  • Meat and poultry: fresh, frozen or chilled—up to 20 kg pp, and proof of country of origin;
  • In addition you can bring in one whole turkey pp.

That sounds pretty lenient, but you must be prepared for any sudden changes as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) can at any time impose an emergency ban on specific products infected by parasites or diseases.

For example, in January 2015, the CFIA banned all raw poultry, poultry products and by-products not fully cooked, including eggs and raw pet food sourced, processed, or packaged in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to protect Canada’s poultry resources from an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza reported in poultry in those states.

Overall, the rules governing which foods you may bring into Canada from the US are quite generous, but you should not take them for granted. What was permissible to bring home last year might be on the banned list today.

Be prepared and do some homework before you decide what to bring home, or what to leave behind. Check out the Canadian government’s guidelines here.

And remember my rule: If it’s edible, report it. No exceptions.

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