10 Foods You Can (And Can't) Bring Into the U.S.
Review this guide before your next trip abroad to avoid making common food mistakes.
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Even experienced globetrotters are sometimes stumped as to whether or not they can bring home olives from Greece or chutney from India, so how is the average traveler supposed to know? Therefore, consider this guide a handy resource for your travels abroad. As a general rule of thumb, foodstuffs sold at airports and stores catering to tourists are more likely to get through Customs than that star fruit you bought at a street market in Thailand.
This information is current as of July 2016. However, since guidelines are always changing based on the shifting nature of food-related diseases and pests, always check U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Don’t Pack a Pest before a trip. Also bear in mind that despite general guidelines, there are a multitude of exceptions, so Customs’ agents ultimately have the final say. Just remember, while Customs doesn’t always check your loot, if they catch you with undeclared food you could be slapped with a (maximum) $10,000 fine.
Canned and Packaged Goods
Many items in this category are on the approved list, including honey and olive and vegetable oils, as long as they’re in vacuum-packed jars. If you’re flying, jarred liquids or soft textures, including peanut butter, must meet the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rule of 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less, otherwise you’ll have to check your bag or part with your souvenir.
This category is tricky. Milk is generally a no-no, unless it’s for infants. Solid cheese is fine as long as it doesn’t contain meat (such as bacon cheddar cheese). Soft cheeses such as Brie and mozzarella are allowed, but liquid cheeses, including cottage and ricotta, aren’t allowed if they came from countries with foot-and-mouth disease. This currently includes parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Add eggs, and products made from raw eggs, to the list of food that’s not permitted, although travelers can bring cooked eggs from Mexico. Yogurt, butter and sour cream are allowed (and hopefully don’t spoil along the way).
Chocolate, Candy and Baked Goods
Luckily, chocolate (including liquid-filled), candy and baked goods are generally allowed. Exceptions include Kinder Surprise Eggs, since the toy inside doesn’t pass FDA safety regulations for children’s toys. Mooncakes (a popular baked good in China) aren’t allowed if they’re stuffed with eggs or meat. However, Mooncakes made in Canada are allowed.
Nuts pass muster as long as they’re boiled, cooked, ground, oven dried, pureed, roasted or steamed. Raw nuts may get the green light providing the shell is removed, such as almonds, cashews and macadamia nuts.
Spices and Condiments
Dried spices are a safe bet, but not if they’re from the citrus family (lemon, lime, orange). Common condiments (ketchup, mustard) are allowed, as are marmite and vegemite.
Fruits and Vegetables
This category depends on what it is and where it’s from. However, since it’s a long list of what’s not allowed, it’s best to err on the side of caution and leave those lingonberries behind in Sweden. If you have your heart set on a particular item, you can also check the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) database, which lets you search by country or item to find what is and isn’t allowed.
Otherwise, the approved items on the short list include coconuts (as long as the husk is removed), peeled garlic cloves and ginger with clean roots. Dried fruit is also on the short list, from apricots and figs to gooseberries and tomatillos.
Since there’s a wealth of information on alcohol alone, view 10 Tips for Bringing Alcohol into the U.S. Non-alcoholic beverages have to meet TSA guidelines if you’re flying. Powdered drinks would be the exception, but they would have to be in the original, sealed container that lists ingredients in English—and even then it’s up to the Customs’ agent. Commercially canned juices should pass inspection. Packaged teas are a common souvenir, but forget about bringing home any with coca, barberry or loose citrus leaves. Roasted and unroasted coffees are okay, but not if they contain pulp.
Grains, Pasta and Bread
All varieties of rice are allowed as long as the hull is removed. The exception is rice from countries that contain the Khapra beetle (including India, Turkey, Israel and a host of others). Flour and products made from it, from wheat to cornmeal, are allowed, as are noodles and ramen. But bid adieu to those accompanying spice packets containing egg or meat.
Surprisingly, there aren’t tight restrictions on fish and seafood, as long as they’re personal quantities. If so, then canned, smoked, dried and frozen are all acceptable, and even fresh fish is allowed. (However, if you’re flying, your seatmates may not appreciate this fact.)
Meat and Poultry
This category generally isn’t allowed, whether it’s cooked, dried, cured, frozen or a meat-based dried soup mix. Canned meat is the one exception that is sometimes permitted, but with additional exceptions: it can’t be lamb or goat, or come from countries with Mad Cow Disease—including Canada. Pork has further restrictions if it’s from Mexico; you can bring a small amount as part of a meal, but any other kind, including canned, will get tossed.