Welcome home — so sorry about the ham
Question: We just came back from a vacation in Spain, where we were assured by all our friends (and by people who sold ham) that it is now legal to bring some ham for personal use into the U.S. So we bought about a pound of jamón ibérico in four vacuum-sealed pouches from the ham store. We declared the ham on our U.S. Customs form and were directed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture line for review. There, the agent told us that it is illegal to bring pork products into the U.S. from any country. The Customs and Border Protection website ( www.lat.ms/1LgDVWe) says, “Pork should be commercially canned and labeled in unopened containers. Pork and pork products are not admissible from Mexico, except for cooked pork in small amounts for a meal.” I wish I’d had this information at the time. Our $100 worth of jamón went into the Customs trash at LAX. Elena Campbell-Martínez
Answer: So much trouble over a little piece of ham? Yes.
Here’s why that ham is so prized: Amy Scattergood, now Los Angeles Times food editor, described the hams this way in a 2008 article: “Jamón ibérico and jamón ibérico de bellota are made from the same black-footed breed of pig, and both are cured by the same methods, using time, salt and some nitrates. But the bellota pigs, finished on acorns, produce hams that are more marbleized. This allows the hams to age longer, yielding a rich, intense, complex flavor.”
That rich, intense, complex flavor was long barred from import to the U.S., but finally overcame regulatory import hurdles about seven years ago.
But that was a triumph for exporters and importers, not, as Campbell-Martínez learned, for individuals.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection website quote above might make you believe your ham will be allowed in, but don’t believe everything you read (or don’t read) between the lines.
In an email, Jennifer Evanitsky from Customs’ Office of Public Affairs said: “The statement on the www.cbp .gov website … referenced [above] was actually preceded by the following direction regarding the importation of animal products and animal by-products: ‘ Meat, milk, egg, poultry, and their products, including products made with these materials, such as dried soup mix or bouillon, are either prohibited or restricted from enter- ing the United States, depending on the types of animal diseases which occur in the country of origin.
“‘Fresh (chilled or frozen), dried, cured, and fully cooked meat is generally prohibited from most countries.’ This direction on dried and cured meat is applicable to the current situation of the Iberian ham.”
This gem from Page 370 of the 726-page Animal Products Manual by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ( www.lat.ms/1RqBgsw) gives more definitive information: Table 3-19-24 (search for “Spain” and you’ll find an “If A, then B” chart about “Cured and Dried Pork Products From Spain”) goes this way: “If the pork is of Spanish origin and cured and dried in Spain and lacks certification: REFUSE ENTRY.” Not looking good for ham. If you dig deeper in the Customs website — go the main site ( www.lat.ms/1Lg DVWe) and put “Spanish ham” into the search engine — you’ll find this: “Parma, Iberian or Serrano hams — Call (301) 851-3300 or toll-free at (877) 770-5990. Only certain plants are certified exporters, and the hams must be accompanied by certificates and seals.”
The (301) number is the National Import Export Services in Riverdale, Md. Its phones are staffed 5 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Pacific time.
I called at 6:04 a.m. on a Tuesday and was on hold for the next 1 hour 9 minutes. When I got a human, she confirmed that the ham is a nonstarter. “We advise people not to bring in ham from Spain,” she said. It requires “a health certificate from the Spanish government, and they will not issue it to a person.”
Just to be sure, I called a second time (noon on Monday, got right through after pressing 1) and got the same info.Campbell-Martínez said she didn’t recall having a certificate.
Don’t try to bring the ham in without declaring it — you could face fines up to $10,000. Your best bet, absent crystalclear and easy-to-find directions from Customs, is to leave the ham behind and buy it here at home. Much more expensive, but it won’t be 10 grand a pound.
JAMÓN IBÉRICO is delicious, no question. As for bringing Spanish ham to the U.S. — that’s a problem.