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Travel Insurance File
Expert advice on travel insurance & cross-border trips

Be Careful Taking Food Across the U.S./Canada Border

12/16/11 • By Milan Korcok

F&V

Recently I posted an advisory warning Canadians to be careful about taking common foodstuffs across the border into the U.S.  The reaction, particularly from some RVers and mobile home travellers was animated—some stating that they had been transporting fridges and pantries full of “good Canadian food” to their winter homes in the south for many years and never had a problem.

That’s great.  And in most cases you probably won’t have a problem because the border agent will make a quick decision and consider you no great risk and let you go. Border agents have a lot of discretion.

Others chastised me for not having done my research with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) rules about foods that can be taken and others that are prohibited.

It’s precisely that I have done my homework that I raised the warning, as I do again, that taking foods into the U.S. can be problematic if you don’t know what you’re doing.  And if you assume that just because the food was in your fridge at home or you bought it in a Canadian supermarket it’s OK to carry with you, think again.

The list of foods that are approved and/or prohibited from entry to the U.S. changes frequently and does not always follow generalized guidelines such as “meat is OK, veggies are not.” The listing can be very lengthy and somewhat confusing.  For example: The U.S. CBP advisory issued July 6, 2011 says the following: “We regret that it is necessary to take agricultural items from your baggage. They cannot be brought into the United States because they may carry animal and plant pests and diseases.  Restricted items include meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, soil, and products made from animal and plant products.”  Now that advisory doesn’t say ALL meats or All fruits or vegetables, but it does warn that some will not be admitted.  Thus, you are required to declare any foodstuff you are transporting, and if you don’t, you can be fined.  The CBP states: “The civil penalty for failing to declare agricultural items at U.S. ports of entry will cost first time offenders $300.  The penalty for the second violation goes up to $500.”

In its section on importation of agricultural products from Canada the CBP notes the following: “Fruits and vegetables grown in Canada are generally admissible, if they have labels identifying them as products of Canada.  Fruits and vegetables merely purchased in Canada are not necessarily admissible.” It notes, for example, that “Potatoes from western regions of Canada are currently restricted because of a disease outbreak. While commercial imports are permitted under stringent guidelines, travelers from Canada should avoid bringing raw potatoes with them into the U.S.

“Food products from Canada, including pet food and fresh (frozen or chilled), cooked, canned or otherwise processed products containing beef, veal, bison, and cervid (e.g., deer, elk, moose, caribou etc) are now permitted from Canada in passenger baggage.  Products containing sheep, lamb, or goat will not be allowed entry.”

Consider cheese: “Solid cheese (hard or semi-soft, that does not contain meat), butter, butter oil, and cultured milk products such as yogurt and sour cream are not restricted. Feta cheese, Brie, Camembert, cheese in brine, Mozzarella and Buffalo Mozzarella are permissable (USDA Animal Product Manual, Tabel 3-14-6). Cheese in liquid (such as cottage cheese or ricotta cheese) and cheese that pours like heavy cream are not admissible from countries affected by foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Cheese containing meat is not admissible depending on the country of origin.”

Now, do you really know where your potatoes, apples, meat products, cheese, etc. came from?  Are they all labelled? Are you prepared to undergo a customs “inspection” to prove the lunch you’re carrying meets government guidelines?

If that’s important to you, then by all means check the CBP website, or for even more detail the www.aphis.usda.gov/favir/ site, to check out if the foods you are carrying are on the approved list. And if you choose to carry foods with you, that’s fine too: but what is not negotiable is that you must declare the foods you are carrying to the border agents, and you should not “forget” about some foods sitting in your picnic hamper in the trunk.

My initial post on this subject was meant as an admonition that carrying food into the U.S. is subject to restriction and just because you bought it in a Canadian supermarket or had it sitting in your fridge does not mean it’s admissible. If you get that one border agent who’s a stickler for detail, or who argued with his wife before leaving for work that day, you may regret taking that mango with you.

My point was that for many of us, certainly me, it’s a lot easier to be able to honestly tell the border agent that you are carrying no food with you and be done with it.

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21 Comments

  1. 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…maurice Forgues

  2. My wife and I crossed at Midway BC into Canada, I hadn’t noticed we had a onion in our motor home (everything else had been removed before getting to the border) after a long and totally ridiculous lecture it was confiscated and according to him we were lucky not to loose our motor home. For a while during the lecture I thought to myself “I’m glad I have clean under wear on” cus’ I’m going to be marched inside……
    Just be careful as some of the agents aren’t ambassadors for there respective countries.

  3. An older post but I was searching for “lunch bag” information and thought I would add what was was recent on the aphis Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements (FAVIR)
    site.

    The above aphis website FAQ paints a pretty bleak picture. I am commuting for work daily and have friends who have had their lunch seized or “reviewed” such that they have just given up bringing one. The CBP officers are required to inspect all food, even those allowed in on an individual basis, for pests. Thus it is possible that they just seize the lot at their discretion.
    From the site:
    “When FAVIR is searched, most commodities are allowed entry into the US only under commercial means or with Import Permits. A traveler will not meet these conditions, so cannot bring most items for personal use. ”

    This is a surprise to me as a person who lives in Canada in a boarder city. When the dollar exchange is favourable, we have always had significant grocery shopping in Canada, esp for the meat.

    Thanks for this post!
    BG

    • Bruce:

      What you describe is not unfamiliar. There is a difference between what is posted on government sites and what the border agents–who are under great time pressures to move people through– actually do.
      Your comment is most instructive.

      Milan

  4. We’re making a trip from Nova Scotia to Ontario and plan to go through the United States because it’s faster and cheaper on fuel. We absolutely positively HAVE to bring food with us because my husband cannot have gluten, soy or sesame. It is nearly impossible to find a place that he can eat with this combination of allergies. The hardest is soy. Many places are beginning to accommodate gluten allergies, but they still use things like vegetable oil (which has soybean oil in it). And a lot of places have no idea what a soy allergy is (they think of soy sauce), and so we risk cross contamination as well.

    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 in the arse. I wish we could just buy take-out. Haha!

    • Sarah:

      You’re right. It is a pain in the….but if you keep your choices to a minimum until you get to Ontario, you should be fine. But you hit it just right: declare everything and you should have no problems.

      Milan

  5. I almost lost my NEXUS card for having 4 Kinder Eggs, small chocolate eggs with toys in them. Sell for .59 cents at WalMart and tjought they were a cute item for my Niece. They are PROHIBITED in the US because they are a choking hazard!! How was I suppose to know, no marking on eggs but Customs agent was pissed I had them and pretty nasty about me not knowing they were not allowed in US. Nothing on Customs website about these crazy eggs. They threatened to take our NEXUS cards away. I had them in a cooler that I had cherry’s in which I declared. I also declared a tomato I had from a fruit stand in Canada, which the website said was OK but Tomatoes are never allowed so they took that but didn’t get angry about.

    • LJ:

      Thanks for your observations. I know exactly what you mean because a couple of years ago my grandchildren had their kinder eggs confiscated while they were going through U.S. security with me. Somehow I was supposed to know that kinder eggs are lethal. As for the tomatoes, who knows what damage they could do to society. That’s why I always say–it’s easier not to bother taking food of any kind–it’s not worth the hassle.

  6. Does anyone know if it’s a good idea to make trail mix or beef jerky to bring along across the border to the United States? I was planning on buying dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, that sort of thing, so I don’t have to spend my money on convenience store food, but if those items look to be an issue, I might have to reconsider!

    • Monica:

      Trail mix and beef jerky are readily available anywhere in the U.S. And they’re cheaper too.
      Why risk the hassle?

      Milan

  7. 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 suppose to. They took my whole family aside to another room with 2 agents. They had to re-xray all my families 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.

    Why such a bother for a small amount? I could see if it was a basket full.

  8. Last time we went through the Canada/USA boarder for camping, we carried no food with us other than baby formula. We were just starting our vacation to South Dakota with our camper trailer and we thought why carry food down into the USA when we can just buy it and consume it there. We were honest with the boarder guards that we had no food with us (not even spices or condiments) The guard looked puzzled when we said we had no food other than baby formula in the trailer. He asked “Really? No food?” We were honest both times and told him, no we were just going to buy what we needed in the US (we didn’t even have chocolate bars to snack on while driving!). We were still pulled over and the trailer thoroughly inspected.

    • Sally:

      You just hit the wrong guy. But you were also lucky in that had the officer found any food in your trailer you would likely have been fined. You did the right thing, even though the outcome was not pleasant. I think anyone with a trailer or RV must be prepared for extra scrutiny.

      Milan

  9. Is it okay to bring frozen homemade pasta sauce with ground beef into the USA border from Canada for a family reunion? Is it going to be a problem with the ground beef?

    • Rhia:

      Why don’t you send the pasta sauce to me? I’ll take care of it.
      As for your question, I would think the border agent might consider it OK, since it’s already cooked. But it could be iffy. Agents have a lot of latitude and if you get one who’s had a bad day he may refuse you. What you must do, is immediately tell the agent that you have pasta sauce, be prepared to show it to him, and be candid in telling him you tried to find out if it was acceptable but you could find anything on the various websites that specified frozen pasta source. And definitely do not take any other food item along, which will show him that you are aware and trying your best to comply with the rules. I can’t be more specific than that.
      Leave plenty of time to get to your destination so that if things don’t go well for you, you make a big batch when you get to the reunion.

      Milan

  10. Being a US border resident with a toddler that had a food dye allergy and an addiction to Fruit Loops – I recently found out that the Canadian version is dye free (along with his other favorite Kraft Mac & Cheese). I’m wondering about making a trip to Sarnia or Windsor to stock up on these items and at what point would they consider not for personal consumption and think it would be for resale?

    • Mindi:

      Your guess is as good as mine. Nothing in the rules about Fruit Loops. Next time take your toddler along with you just to prove you’re not kidding. Then ask the border agents. They’re more concerned about other substances. You can’t get high on fruit loops: can you?

      Milan

  11. Can I bring honey from Ireland to Canada?

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