Make a list, check it twice for customs rules

Robert Szostek
U.S. European Command Customs Public Affairs

Some people are just not good at buying the right gifts. While this is usually a matter of taste, many items available in Europe that seem like good Christmas presents violate U.S. customs rules.

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

Meat and meat products are the biggest problems, said William Manning, Department of Agriculture attaché to the U.S. European Command.

***image2*** “European delicacies like French pâté, German wurst, Spanish chorizo salami and Italian Parma ham are here for the buying and are much sought-after in the States,” he said. “Unfortunately, they can also carry the spores of Foot and Mouth Disease, a virulent livestock ailment eradicated in the United States.” These products are therefore banned, as are canned meats and even soup mixes or pasta containing meat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also prohibited because they could harbor pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly.

The threat to U.S. agriculture is so great that Customs and Border Protection fine people who mail or take banned foods to the States  a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $250 as a deterrent. Criminal action for deliberate cases of smuggling can result in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

Europe boasts many fine wines, spirits and liquor-filled candies that make original Christmas gifts. Unfortunately the U.S. Postal Service bans all liquor from being mailed, even if it is inside a piece of candy. However, customs allows travelers over 21 years of age to import one liter of duty-free liquor. Mr. Manning said the federal taxes and duties are currently low enough to make it worthwhile to take more than one liter of beer or wine stateside as gifts.  However, state laws must also be met which can add to the cost. Taxes on distilled spirits like Scotch whiskey are generally considered high, he noted.

Cuban rum and cigars are also available in Europe but are prohibited from import stateside by economic sanctions.

Wildlife products also present problems. Buying ivory as a gift is a bad idea, according to customs officials.

“Only ivory pieces previously registered with Customs and Border Protection may be imported,” said Bill Johnson, director of the European Command’s Customs and Border Clearance Agency. Whale teeth carvings, known as netsuke or scrimshaw, are also prohibited from import. When buying furs, shoppers should insist on a certificate of origin stating the animal’s scientific name to avoid buying prohibited endangered species products. The movement of caviar is also restricted.

Many European countries have a tradition of making nativity scenes that Americans love to buy. However, the natural products used to make them are often banned from import to the United States because of the agricultural pests that could be nested in them, Mr. Johnson said. Shoppers can be fined $100 or more if they mail scenes that contain moss, bark, pine cones, untreated straw or other materials found to contain insects. However, agriculture officials say nativity scenes that are produced using stripped wood, plastic, or commercially cleaned and lacquered straw are OK.

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