Not all holiday gifts make it past customs

Robert Szostek
U.S. European Command Customs

Many items available in Europe that seem like good Christmas presents
violate U.S. customs rules. Some products are banned from the U.S. and
others may be carried in baggage but not mailed. Violations of customs,
agriculture or postal regulations can lead to hefty fines and

Meat products are the biggest problem. “European delicacies like French
pâté, German wurst, Spanish chorizo salami and Italian Parma ham are
here for the buying and much sought-after in the states,” said William
Manning, Department of Agriculture attaché to the U.S. European

“Unfortunately, they can also carry the spores of Foot and Mouth
Disease, a virulent livestock ailment eradicated in the United States,”
he said.

These products are therefore banned, as are canned meats and even soup
mixes or pastas containing meat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also
prohibited because they could harbor pests like the Mediterranean fruit

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 $100
to $250 as a deterrent. Criminal action for deliberate cases of
smuggling can end in a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

Europe boasts many fine wines and spirits and you can even buy
liquor-filled candies that make original Christmas gifts.
Unfor-tunately, 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. If you plan on taking more than one liter of
beer or wine stateside as gifts, the federal taxes and duties are
currently low enough to make it worthwhile. However, state laws must
also be met which can add to the cost. Taxes on distilled spirits like
Scotch whiskey are generally considered high.

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

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

“Only ivory pieces previously registered with CBP may be imported,”
said Bill Johnson, deputy 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 and travelers are allowed to
have only 250 grams of these endangered sturgeon eggs with them when
they cross international boundaries.

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. Shoppers can be fined
$100 and more if they mail scenes that contain moss, bark, pinecones,
untreated straw or other materials found to contain insects.
Agriculture officials say nativity scenes that are produced using
stripped wood, plastic, or commercially cleaned and lacquered straw are
good to go.

Another purchase to avoid is the oriental water pipe. Known as hookahs,
chillums or bongs, these pipes are considered as drug paraphernalia so
they are not allowed to be imported.

Military customs offices can offer more advice on these and other
holiday mail questions. They have many informative pamphlets from CBP
and the Department of Agriculture to ensure the gifts bought for the
holidays do not present problems stateside. For more information, visit