In­ter­na­tional fliers can find bans tough to di­gest

In­crease seen in seizures of food and agri­cul­tural items

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Colin Camp­bell

By the time in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers ar­riv­ing at BWI-Mar­shall Air­port meet Sue Rosoff, they’ve al­ready an­swered her ques­tions three times. But, one by one, she asks them again.

Did you bring any fruit or veg­eta­bles with you — ap­ples or or­anges? Any meats — beef, pork? Seeds? What about Ma­ma­juana, the wood­chip drink? Any food at all? Any palm hats or bas­kets?

As the num­ber of in­ter­na­tional flights at BWI has risen sharply, Rosoff and her fel­low agri­cul­ture spe­cial­ists at U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion have been seiz­ing more banned items to pre­vent in­va­sive species, dis­ease-car­ry­ing foods and any­thing else that could po­ten­tially harm Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture from slip­ping into the coun­try.

Cus­toms does not re­lease the ex­act num­ber of agri­cul­ture-re­lated seizures by air­port, but the gen­eral in­crease re­ported at BWI fol­lows an up­ward trend na­tion­wide. In the 2015 fis­cal year, cus­toms agents re­ported seiz­ing an av­er­age of 470 in­va­sive in­sect pests and weed seeds and

4,548 in­ad­mis­si­ble pieces of food ev­ery day at 328 points of en­try. That’s up from 425 and 4,447 per day the pre­vi­ous fis­cal year.

Of­fi­cials haven’t at­trib­uted the rise to any one cause, but they point to sev­eral fac­tors such as in­creased in­ter­na­tional travel, bet­ter searches us­ing ca­nine teams and other meth­ods, and “im­proved risk-based as­sess­ments” of the routes and coun­tries that are of­ten the sources of pests and pro­hib­ited items.

At BWI, “it’s mostly a lot of tourists, so we don’t get a lot of the weird stuff other places get,” said Rosoff, a Ran­dall­stown na­tive. “But it doesn’t mean we’re not on our toes.”

Most trav­el­ers an­swer her in­quiries with a se­ries of “no’s” and move on. Only about 5 per­cent to 10 per­cent have items on the list and de­clare them, she said.

“It’s the other 1 to 5 per­cent who might not be so hon­est,” Rosoff said. “That’s who we’re look­ing for.”

If ar­riv­ing pas­sen­gers have de­clared food or other agri­cul­tural items — or if X-ray scans of their lug­gage have given them away — Rosoff di­rects them to a cor­ner of the cus­toms area on the bot­tom floor of the E Ter­mi­nal, where their bags again are scanned and searched.

By this point, they’ve filled out a small blue cus­toms dec­la­ra­tion form, and an­swered the ques­tions again on a touch­screen mon­i­tor and to the cus­toms of­fi­cer stamp­ing their pass­ports.

“We give them quite a few op­por­tu­ni­ties to tell us,” Rosoff said.

The fine for de­lib­er­ately try­ing to sneak pro­hib­ited agri­cul­tural items into the U.S. is $300, which must be paid im­me­di­ately at the air­port. Trav­el­ers may take their cases to court, although that means the po­ten­tial fines then can be raised to $1,100 or more.

The levy of fines is dis­cre­tionary, Rosoff said, and most of the time she con­fis­cates the items with­out writ­ing a ticket.

BWI’s in­ter­na­tional traf­fic in­creased by nearly a third last year to 1.1 mil­lion pas­sen­gers, thanks to new in­ter­na­tional air­lines and global routes. It was the air­port’s first year boast­ing more than 1 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­gers.

The air­port de­buted in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­ger ser­vice with twice-weekly flights to Paris in 1960, when it was still known as Friend­ship Air­port. Air­lines now of­fer non­stop flights from BWI to 10 in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions: Aruba, Mex­ico, Costa Rica, Eng­land, Ja­maica, the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, Ice­land, Canada and two air­ports in the Ba­hamas.

A $105 mil­lion re­con­struc­tion of the D and E con­courses with a new se­cu­rity check­point is ex­pected to fur­ther in­crease in­ter­na­tional travel.

Guide­lines from the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture gov­ern what’s banned and what isn’t. The list is up­dated reg­u­larly, some­times more than once a month. The in­spec­tors — who are re­quired to have de­grees in the bi­o­log­i­cal sciences and un­dergo months of train­ing — keep binders with the most up­dated lists for ref­er­ence.

The ques­tions they ask pas­sen­gers change slightly for each flight, de­pend­ing on the coun­try of ori­gin.

The most com­monly con­fis­cated items tend to be for­got­ten ap­ples or or­anges, Rosoff said. They aren’t al­lowed be­cause they could carry un­seen pests, such as the Mediter­ranean fruit fly, which caused more than $100 mil­lion in dam­age to Cal­i­for­nia’s crops in the 1980s.

Tourists will some­times re­turn from the Caribbean with hats or bas­kets wo­ven from palm leaves, an­other no-no be­cause of the red palm mites that have spread like Sue Rosoff, back left, ex­am­ines the lug­gage of an in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­gers while an­other cus­toms agent, Joanne Clare, tosses a plas­tic bag con­tain­ing Ja­maican june plums on a grow­ing pile of con­fis­cated food and agri­cul­ture items at BWI. wild­fire across the is­lands, blow­ing in the wind and de­vour­ing the trees’ leaves. The agri­cul­ture de­part­ment has dubbed them “the big­gest mite ex­plo­sion ever ob­served in the Amer­i­cas.”

Rice from the Mid­dle East also gets flagged be­cause of con­cerns about the Khapra bee­tle, one of the world’s most de­struc­tive pests of grain prod­ucts and seeds. The bee­tle has in­fil­trated the U.S. a num­ber of times, in­clud­ing once in Owings Mills in 1997, and has been erad­i­cated each time. It’s con­sid­ered a “dirty feeder be­cause it dam­ages more grain ker­nels than it con­sumes,” the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture says.

Pas­sen­gers who’ve been horse­back rid­ing while abroad are re­quired to have their shoes dis­in­fected, as in­sects from sta­bles can latch onto the footwear.

Much of the in­spec­tion is done vis­ually, but the agri­cul­ture spe­cial­ists have a lab just a hall­way away where the con­fis­cated ma­te­ri­als are in­spected with a mi­cro­scope and other in­stru­ments.

Their find­ings are doc­u­mented and re­ported — de­pend­ing on what is found — to a va­ri­ety of agen­cies, in­clud­ing the agri­cul­ture de­part­ment, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion and state agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials.

The cus­toms in­spec­tors, who are also sta­tioned around the port of Bal­ti­more, “play a ma­jor role in safe­guard­ing Mary­land’s agri­cul­ture in­dus­try,” Mary­land Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Joe Barten­felder said. “Their work prevents in­va­sive species from in­fil­trat­ing and dam­ag­ing our lo­cal nurs­eries and ecosys­tems.”

One evening this week, Rosoff opened a pas­sen­ger’s lug­gage, re­leas­ing a strong seafood aroma as she pulled out bags of cooked snails, dried cray­fish, shrimp, beef soup sea­son­ings and ground melon seed. All were al­lowed.

Roasted peanuts and spices in an­other bag passed the test, too. With a la­tex-gloved hand, Rosoff felt down into the bot­toms of a pair of black boots in the bag. “Oc­ca­sion­ally, we’ll get some man­goes in shoes,” she said.

A bag of dried beans from Kenya al­most was con­fis­cated be­cause of a cou­ple of stray rice ker­nels, but upon in­spec­tion the pack­age was deemed OK and Rosoff re­turned the food to its owner.

The same pas­sen­ger wasn’t so lucky with sev­eral pieces of alu­minum foil-wrapped beef, which got tossed into a trash bag.

The banned items — and all in-flight trash such as news­pa­pers, nap­kins and food trays that come off in­ter­na­tional planes — are spe­cially bagged and put into an industrial dump­ster marked “IN­TER­NA­TIONAL TRASH, INCINERATE ONLY.”

While not to the ex­tent of big­ger in­ter­na­tional hubs in New York and Wash­ing­ton, the in­spec­tors at BWI seize their share of “bush meat” — any­thing from mon­keys to ro­dents hunted in the wild — and they’ve con­fis­cated animal parts from a few Voodoo prac­ti­tion­ers over the years.

The job, by na­ture, comes with a de­gree of con­fronta­tion.

Rosoff and other in­spec­tors catch flak from peo­ple when they con­fis­cate their food. Irked pas­sen­gers some­times shoot them a nasty look and tell them to “en­joy it.”

“Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, we do not eat any of the items we seize,” Rosoff said with a laugh. “They think ei­ther we’re go­ing to con­sume it or sell it. Far from the truth.”

In­spec­tors seized the jerk pork that Den­nis Reid of Lau­rel brought back from his an­nual trip to visit fam­ily in Ja­maica. Reid, 45, said he’d never had pork con­fis­cated by cus­toms be­fore, but was told it was cur­rently banned due to height­ened swine flu con­cerns.

Los­ing the meat was un­for­tu­nate, he said, but the in­spec­tors were care­ful in han­dling his pos­ses­sions dur­ing the search.

“They’re pretty re­spect­ful when they’re go­ing through your stuff,” Reid said.

The work­ers are mind­ful that pas­sen­gers have just got­ten off an hours-long flight. In cases when peo­ple are most up­set, of­fi­cials say, it’s usu­ally be­cause the con­fis­cated items have a high mon­e­tary or sen­ti­men­tal value — such as dirt from a fam­ily mem­ber’s for­eign grave.

But most of what’s taken is food, which can be nearly as sen­si­tive.

“The agri­cul­ture folks try to be re­spect­ful, be­cause we know food is in­ti­mate,” said An­drea Sin­clair, cus­toms agri­cul­ture su­per­vi­sor at BWI.

“But we have to bal­ance that with our mis­sion, which is to pro­tect Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture from for­eign pests and for­eign dis­eases.”

“Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, we do not eat any of the items we seize.” Sue Rosoff, agri­cul­ture spe­cial­ist for U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

Sue Rosoff, an agri­cul­ture spe­cial­ist with U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, ex­plains to Paulette Don­ald­son, vis­it­ing from Mon­tego Bay, Ja­maica, that her im­ported yams need to be con­fis­cated in the cus­toms area of BWI-Mar­shall Air­port.

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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