The El Paso office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently busted a guy smuggling bundles of Mexican contraband hidden underneath the back seat of his vehicle. But it wasn’t drugs he was running across the border. It was bologna.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations Agriculture Specialists working at the El Paso area port of entry seized 14 rolls of Mexican bologna on Thursday,” the news release stated. The illegal lunch meat posed a threat to the U.S. pork industry, the CBP stressed in all seriousness.
What a load of baloney, I thought. Unless the driver had intended to feed these meat rolls to his pigs – and, judging by the care he’d taken to bundle them with saran wrap and squirrel them away under his seat, ain’t nobody getting his bologna – I couldn’t fathom how these wieners could be perceived as any sort of threat to the U.S. pork industry.
But due to the myriad diseases that can be found in swine, some of which cannot even be broken down when exposed to high temperatures in cooking, the United States prohibits its import, regardless of use.
The bologna bust was strange, but not uncommon. In reality, the vast majority of customs seizures that occur at the U.S.-Mexico border look a lot like this. No drugs, just a bunch of travelers unwittingly bringing personal items that, for one reason or another, are not allowed into the United States.
It’s easy to overlook these restrictions. The list of prohibited items is long and tedious and informed by various obscure restrictions from some 40 different government agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The no-no list includes apples, virtually all citrus fruit, raw poultry and eggs, pork and any live plants. But beyond those basics, the list can get curiously specific.
Here's a look of some of the stranger things you can't bring into the U.S.
1) Avocado pits
The import of avocados, aka nature’s butter, has long been a point of contention in the United States. Starting in 1914, it was prohibited to import the creamy green fruit from Mexico to prevent the infestation of certain pests found only in Mexico, including the seed weevil, which lives in the avocado pits and posed a threat to domestic avocado orchards in California and Florida. The ban has since been lifted to allow some Mexican states to import the fruit commercially, provided they abide by certain treatment and processing rules.
But personal avocado imports are another matter. In California, travelers from Mexico are completely prohibited from entering with avocados, while other border states only allow Mexican avocados to enter if they've been de-pitted first.
That, of course, essentially defeats the purpose since the approximate lifespan of a depitted avocado is something like 12 minutes. But Mexican grocery stores know the rules and will even de-pit the avocados for you right there in the store.
2) Arapaima skin boots
These boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do – unless, that is, you’re planning on walking across the border.
Arapaima is a species of bodytongue fish native to the Amazon that has become an increasingly popular material for boots. But they also violate the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) treaty, which is in place to protect wildlife against over-exploitation.
Andy Grado, the agriculture specialist of the CBP at the Presidio International Port of Entry in West Texas, said over the past couple months his office has already seized three pairs of these boots. In many cases, customs officers will seize the boots right off travelers’ feet. This goes for any exotic-skin (crocodile, elephant) boots, belts or bags that violate U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws.
“We give them some slippers, something so that they don’t burn their feet,” Grado said.
He added, “We’ll detain the boots for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. We’ll send it off to them, and they will decide whether it’s exotic or not, protected or not. If it’s not they’ll send the boots back to the owner. There’s a possibility they can get their boots back.”
3) Bird cages
Thanks to bird flu and Newcastle’s disease – an infection that is considered one of the most serious of avian ailments – any bird cage showing signs of previous use (droppings, feathers) is prohibited from crossing the border.
“Last year we had a really bad outbreak of avian flu in the Midwest that was brought in by migrating birds,” said Grado. “We obviously can’t control wildlife, but as far as domestic birds, we try and limit it. That’s typically how it gets introduced into areas.”
Wooden bird cages are strictly prohibited because wood is porous.
“You can’t clean it and expect to bring it in,” Grado said. “People bring in bird cages a lot.”
And don't even think about entering with a bologna bird cage full of avocados. That's really frowned upon.
4) Uncleaned ostrich eggs
The same goes for ostrich egg shells, which are sold in Mexico as decorative items. You can only bring them back from Mexico if they’ve been bleached and adequately cleaned, Grado said.
“But we’ve picked some up that were not clean,” he added. “You could see a little bit of yolk in them, and there was dirt around the opening.”
For people who fail to declare the items they’re bringing across the border, penalties can be as high as $1,000. Grado said that typically, first-time offenders will be charged $300, while second-time offenders get slapped with a $500 fine.
As for all the stuff that gets confiscated, most of it gets held in freezers and is eventually destroyed in incinerators.
“That’s another legend,” said Grado. “That we seize everything and then we eat it. Everything we seize gets destroyed.”