Taking Food into the US? Do Your Homework First.

With snowbird season fast approaching, it’s time to brush up on the rules about bringing food into the US or taking leftovers back into Canada. This is especially important for snowbirds travelling in mobile homes and RVs—usually well stocked with all sorts of provisions.

Here’s a recent comment we received that illustrates the problem:

“I took fruit (one banana and one apple) from our hotel breakfast bar in Vancouver so I wouldn’t have to spend $2 per piece at the airport. I declared it like I was supposed to. They took my whole family aside to another room with 2 agents. They had to re-x ray all my family’s bags and examine the fruit. Boy did I feel stupid when US customs took my banana away, the apple was fine because it had a label. I wish it was more clearly posted that it’s not worth the time to go through the hassle for 2 pieces of fruit that I was going to consume on the airplane.”

And here’s another one:

“Last fall, as we were entering Washington from B.C., all our fruits and veg. that we had bought in the Okanagan valley were confiscated…we were also told that they could have given us a $300 fine for not declaring it….we were ignorant of the law but that is no excuse…we now take it very seriously.”

You would think that with all the concerns about border security, bananas or onions would be low on the priority scale. But to be fair, border agents need to keep potential pestilence and disease from infecting the nation’s agricultural output, and a little disease or bug can go a long way, very fast. For example, an outbreak of citrus canker, as occurred a decade ago in Florida, almost wiped out the state’s citrus industry. I had a key lime tree in my yard, and because it was within a mile of an infected orange tree, inspectors had to cut it down and burn all the parts.  

The problem is that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of those foods that are admissible, or those that are banned.  If there were such a list we would gladly publish it. But this is a moving target. It changes from day to day. Fortunately, for cross-border travellers, the list of admissible products is a lot longer than the list of prohibited ones. 

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, most meats and vegetables grown in Canada are admissible—but not all. Most cheeses (the hard or semi-soft) are admissible, but softer ones and those that spread may not be. Fruits and veggies? Consider where they were grown. And so on…

Before you stock up your lunch basket or your RV’s fridge, check out the rules. You can find a Q&A on bringing food into the US for personal use on the Customs and Border Patrol website. For a list of approved produce from Canada, you can also check the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, which gives it all to you in excruciating details.

You can also be as meticulous as this TIF visitor: “I suppose I will prepare all my foods beforehand very carefully (going through the website list) and then complete a list of the foods and ingredients that we have with us. Then I can’t ‘forget’ to declare anything! Boy, this whole food thing is a real pain.”

Or, as more and more of our visitors are saying: “Don’t bother taking any foods across the border. Whatever you are bringing can be bought in the U.S. It’s not worth the hassle.”

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