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Customs Office Offers Holiday Shopping Guidelines

By Robert Szostek
American Forces Press Service

STUTTGART-VAIHINGEN, Germany, Oct. 26, 1996 – Some people have a gift for buying the wrong presents at Christmas. While this is normally a matter of taste, many items that make good Christmas presents are not so good from the customs point of view.

Some items are banned from import to the United States outright, and others may be carried in baggage but not mailed. Violations of customs, agriculture or mail regulations can lead to hefty fines and confiscation of the goods.

Meat and meat products are big problems.

"European delicacies like French pate, German wurst, Spanish chorizo salami and Italian ham are much sought after in the states," said David R. Reeves, U.S Department of Agriculture adviser to the European Command. "Unfortunately they can also carry the spores of foot and mouth disease, a virulent livestock ailment eradicated in the United States." These products, all canned meats and even soup mixes containing meat are banned.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also prohibited because they could harbor pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly. The threat is so great the Agriculture Department levies fines of at least $250 on people who mail or take banned foods to the United States. Criminal action for deliberate cases of smuggling can end in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

Wildlife products also present problems. Buying ivory as a gift is a bad idea, say customs officials. "Only ivory pieces registered with the U.S. Customs Service may be imported," said Norman W. Kaucher, customs program manager at the European Command. Whale teeth carvings known as netsuke or scrimshaw are also prohibited. When buying furs, shoppers should insist on a certificate of origin stating the animal's scientific name to avoid buying prohibited endangered species products.

Another purchase to avoid is the Oriental water pipe. Known as hookahs, chillums or bongs, these pipes may look cute on a mantelpiece, but the U.S. Customs Service sees them as drug paraphernalia, and they are not allowed in the country.

Iranian mats, rugs and carpets are popular purchases abroad too, but banned from the states due to the embargo on Iran. Persian-style carpets made in other countries are not restricted. Cuban rum and cigars are also often available overseas, but likewise prohibited from import stateside by economic sanctions.

Europe boasts many fine wines and spirits. The Europeans even produce liquor-filled candies, which make original Christmas gifts. Unfortunately, the U.S. Postal Service bans all liquor from the mails, even if it is inside a piece of candy. However, customs allows travelers over age 21 to import one liter of duty-free liquor.

If you plan on taking more than one liter of beer or wine to the United States as gifts, the federal taxes and duties are currently low enough to make it worthwhile. However, state laws must also be met; they can add to the cost. Taxes on distilled spirits such as whiskey are very high.

Counterfeits of well known trademarked items are also banned from the mail. Many producers of "classy" items from shoes and clothing to perfumes, watches and jewelry have registered their trademarks with customs, which inspect mail for faked designer products.

"People wanting to check on a particular product can get the 'Trademark Information' pamphlet from customs," Kaucher explained.

Military customs offices can offer more advice on these and other Christmas shopping questions. They have many informative pamphlets from the U.S. Customs Service and the Department of Agriculture to ensure the gifts you buy for Christmas don't present problems stateside.

(Szostek writes for the U.S. European Command.)

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