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Help Protect American Agriculture, Natural Resources

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2001 – Many travelers have asked, "Why did customs take my ham and cheese sandwich and apple?"

In fact, U.S. Customs Service inspectors don't take people's snacks. What they do is tell Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspectors that someone coming from overseas is carrying food.

And there's a good reason Customs tells on travelers. They're safeguarding U.S. agriculture and natural resources from pests and diseases. They're helping to save Americans hundreds of millions of dollars in higher prices for food and other agricultural products and in the cost of control and eradication programs.

Consequently, service members and their families need to know USDA rules on items they can bring home to the United States from foreign countries, as well as those brought to the mainland from Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Some of the most notorious and varied pest hitchhikers are microscopic insects, disease agents and weed seeds that lurk in soil and plant parts, officials said. When entering the United States, travelers are required to declare any meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, and plant and animal products with them. That declaration must cover all items carried in baggage and hand luggage and in vehicles.

Most foreign fresh, dried and canned meats and meat products are prohibited. An exception is canned shelf- stable hams. Commercially produced hard cheese is allowable if the product doesn't contain meat. Generally, all other animal products should be considered prohibited unless the Agriculture Department has given specific clearance for entry.

Some plants may be imported legally and safely if USDA guidelines are followed.

The USDA's biggest battle now is against the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease into the United States. The effort includes working with the Defense Department to ensure military personnel and their equipment don't come home with anything that could cause problems. All personnel and their baggage are subject to inspection before their departure and again upon arrival in the United States to protect against the threat of foot-and-mouth disease.

Animal disease organisms, such as those that cause foot- and-mouth disease and swine fever, can live for months in sausage and other types of meat, including many types of canned meat from foreign countries.

Countries with active outbreaks of the foot-and-mouth disease include the United Kingdom, France, Argentina and the Netherlands. Other European countries are also considered at risk for potential outbreaks.

In addition to human inspectors, the USDA has a Beagle Brigade out in force sniffing travelers and their luggage at ports of entry. The detector dogs are searching for food -- prohibited fruits, plants and meat. A third tool is low- energy X-ray machines adapted to reveal concealed fruits and meats. Travelers who fail to declare a prohibited item can be fined up to $250 on the spot and have their items confiscated.

Officials said one piece of fruit or meat may contain many microscopic pests, and one carelessly discarded item could devastate crops and livestock. For example, they said it's likely that a traveler carried in a wormy piece of fruit that brought hitchhiking Mediterranean fruit flies to California in 1979. A three-year fight to eradicate the pest cost more than $100 million.

Fruits, vegetables and meats aren't the only products that carry harmful diseases into the United States. Live animals and birds can harbor diseases such as the exotic, highly contagious Newcastle disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulates the importation of certain animal species and has specific regulations regarding pets, including dogs and cats, and nonhuman primates.

USDA officials also said that military personnel, DoD civilian employees and their families should ensure their personal property, including privately owned vehicles, doesn't harbor pests.

o Clean vehicles before shipping, paying particular attention to tires, wheel wells and undercarriage.

o Garden tools, bicycles and other outdoor items should be carefully examined for dirt, soil or manure.

o Any dirty or soiled item should be cleaned with soapy water.

Insects and diseases can hide in packing material made from agricultural products like straw and burlap. Some pests can live on packing material for a long time without food. The tiny brownish-black khapra beetle, for example, can hide and survive for up to three years in the folds of burlap. It goes on a rampage when it reaches a supply of grain, officials said.

Officials said no packages should be mailed to the United States that contain foods or other prohibited or restricted items. Don't mail sausages, meat products or soiled items. Service members are advised to check with APO and FPO personnel if they have further questions.

For up-to-date USDA travel information, call 1-866-SAFGUARD (723-4827). Travelers can also look in the phone book under "U.S. Department of Agriculture" for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's nearest Plant Protection and Quarantine Office or visit the agency's home page on the Internet at http://www.aphis.usda.gov.

Other related sites:

The USDA's online "Travelers' Tips on Bringing Food, Plant and Animal Products into the United States" booklet is at www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/usdatips.pdf. Pdf files require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Illustrated history of the USDA Beagle Brigade, www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/detdogs.pdf.

Illustrated fact sheet on foot-and-mouth disease, www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/brofmd.pdf.

Importation rules for animals and animal products in general, www.aphis.usda.gov/NCIE/. Rules for returning with pets, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dq/animal.htm.

The U.S. Customs Service travel Web site at www.customs.ustreas.gov/xp/cgov/travel/ has links to access online brochures and fact sheets including "Know Before You Go," No. 0000-0512, and "Moving Household Goods to the United States: A Guide to Customs Regulations," booklet 0000-0518.

Online U.S. State Department travel publications can be accessed at travel.state.gov/travel_pubs.html.

The State Department's Consular Affairs home page at travel.state.gov/index.html has links to access information on travel, passports, children's citizenship and birth certificate issues, and more.

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