Is That Charred Monkey in Your Bag?

International travelers bring exotic foods to Dulles

By Sharon Donnell
|  Thursday, May 6, 2010  |  Updated 3:30 PM EDT
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Is That Charred Monkey in Your Bag?

Customs and Border Patrol

Raw beef from Brazil confiscated at Dulles.

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Customs and Border Protection officers were given credit for foiling the getaway of Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad at JFK Monday night, but the CBP is also on the front lines at Dulles every day, keeping watch over what comes into the country as well as who and what gets out. 

It’s not just people who might bring harm to America -- food can, too, according to Steve Sapp, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
 
From an agricultural standpoint, “Our biggest concern is animal and plant disease. We don’t want to introduce disease to the U.S.”
 
It’s a significant concern. Diseases such as foot and mouth or bird flu can lay waste to an entire industry. Yet many international travelers do not realize they can’t bring most food items into the U.S. Every day CBP confiscates forbidden items, Sapp said.
 
Here are a couple recent examples:
  • A passenger arrived from Vietnam Sunday with two boxes of pre-packaged bird's nest. As the name suggests, bird's nest is an edible nest -- usually made by cave swifts. It is an Asian delicacy used to make soup broth. However, bird's nest poses potential threats, such as exotic Newcastle disease and the highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1, aka bird flu).
  • Last Friday, a passenger arrived from Brazil with about 60 pounds of raw beef and about 11 pounds of raw chicken. The meat products pose potential threats to American livestock that include foot and mouth disease and exotic Newcastle disease.
CBP didn’t fine either traveler since both acknowledged they were in possession of the inadmissible products

The outcome was different for an Ethiopian traveler who arrived Friday and repeatedly denied possessing about four pounds of dried beef, which CBP eventually found. The traveler was fined about $300. 
 
Most of the travelers do not intend to sell the forbidden items, instead bringing the foodstuffs for special family celebrations. Many items are exotic to us, but not in the traveler’s home country, Sapp said.
 
The oddest thing he’s seen?
 
“It’s not considered odd in Africa, but a former elected official coming into D.C. for his nephew’s college graduation happened to bring charred monkey in his suitcase. It’s a delicacy over there.”
 
The traveler had several monkey carcasses in his suitcase, Sapp said. He has pictures, but they are “kind of harsh.”
 
As for the Brazilian traveler bearing 71 pounds of raw meat, that’s unusual. Most people bring in small amounts, maybe 5 or 10 pounds, especially around ethnic holidays. A 71-pound haul? “That’s unique,” Sapp said. “That is a lot of food.”
 
All the forbidden food items end up in the same place, Sapp said. They are incinerated at Dulles. And not in a barbecue pit.

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