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Don't lose it at Customs ... keeping the cheese

There is an excellent article in the SF Chronicle this week about which foods from which countries are allowed through U.S. Customs.

This link is to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rules ... "Know Before You Go" brochure (see "Customs contact" Page F4)


Chowhounds are always asking "What should we buy for our vacation in xxx". At the end of the article is a great country, by country check list. It also has some savy, chowy hints for where to shop and how to shop abroad.


As the journalist writes:

"... knowing the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection rules before I go ... I won't be that clueless tourist standing in the market in Florence wondering if it's OK to bring back a salami. (It's not.)"

Check the Customs site before you go, rules change.

But it is a, uh, moderated Customs, and they reserve the right to take anything at any time without notice or explanation. It is up to the discrection of the customs agent and they would rather be safe than sorry.

There are steps to take if you feel you've been wronged.
- ask to see a supervisor
- ask to see the manual that says the item is not allowed
- don't sign ANY documents. If you don't sign away the item, you might get it back if you dispute the decision outside of the airport.

The above exchange should be done calmly and not with the heat of emotion. Don't be demanding and argumentative.

And don't ... DON'T ... not ever, SMUGGLE anything.

Even if the article is allowed and you don't declare it you can be charged with smuggling. Someone smuggling legal items annoys customs even more. I will tell you from personal experience NEVER annoy customs.

Declare it and be prepared to lose any item. Hide it and you could be fined up to $50,000. Personally I'd rather lose a $50 cheese than pay the fine.

Go in mentally prepared and it should not be as traumatic. Expect to lose, and if not, whoo-hoo.

BTW, food is destroyed and NEVER eaten by Customs agents. It's not like there are Chowhound custom agents selecting the best for lunch every day.


Forget about it if living in California. For other states check.


A 'reasonable amount'... about 60 liters (approx 80 bottles). This is for California. Other states have different rules.


Mustard, honey, vinegar, olive oil and things like that are ok.


Depends on the country and the grain. Check the Customs site.


Fresh, cured, processed, boullon cubes, meat soup mixes, tinned foie gras, canned meat

No, no, no, no, no, probably not, maybe (SOME canned meat,perhaps)


The soft cheeses, nope. Hard cheeses, even those that use raw milk ... as long as it is for personal consumption ... USUALLY yes.

So 99.9% of the time that hard cheese will go through. However, be prepared for the exception and factor that in the decision about whether to buy or not. Don't get too attached to your cheese.

So there is no need to pull a Lucy and disguise the cheese as a baby. There is a similar situation in the article where it turned out the 'pregnant' woman was smuggling a watermelon.

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  1. Please note that the standards quoted in the article regarding personal importation of wine are for California ports of entry and California residents. Other states have different rules.

    1. Great information rworange! Thanks!

      1. Great advice.

        For years, I lived in Dearborn, MI, and I would head over to the Windsor Public Market in Canada three or four times a month for fresh meat, fruits and vegetables. I would recommend the following:

        1) Before leaving, get all the information from customs in advance. Specifically, what cannot be imported, what they are looking for, etc.

        2) Segregate the goods in your car so that the customs officer can readily look at them if necessary.

        3) Have your receipts ready for review.

        4) Lose the attitude. They have a job to do that is not pleasant and they don't need grief.

        5) NEVER try to smuggle things in. If they catch you, it can be a very unpleasant experience.

        6) If you do not agree with the regulations, the person to take it up with is your Congressional representative, not the customs agent.

        1. Great advice. I was hoping others like you and Melanie would add to the knowledge about getting through customs.

          I wonder if there are sites like the US site that can be checked for other countries regarding food products.

          I never smuggled anything, but once I got testy with a custom agent when it appeared I was going to lose the last plane home that night because of the line at customs. It wasn't pleasant and I eventually had to change airlines to avoid that customs stop because every time I went through after that I got a hard time. Letters to the customs office got blown off.

          There are some people who don't forgive and forget and there are some people you know enough not to fool with ... ever. I may be pushy, I'm not an idiot. I'm very respectful at customs and never break any rules.

          If smuggling something, you are a criminal and will be treated as such. So unless you enjoy full body searches and being grilled by some SERIOUS people ... don't smuggle, don't smuggle, don't smuggle.

          1. I got nailed for "forgetting" to declare a chunk of Jinhua ham my BIL once slipped into my luggage in Shanghai. The result was a $50 fine on the spot accompanied by a stern lecture about how lucky I was to get off so easily, AND a flag on my record in the Immigration computers. Now I get sent to the USDA inspection station every time I enter the country.

            T'ain't worth it, folks.

            1. It may be worthwhile pointing out that neither I nor anyone I know has ever experienced problems taking cheese – even soft raw-milk cheese – from Canada to the US. I've even been told by US customs agents that if it's sold in Canada it's OK for import. It should also be noted that Canadian law doesn't distinguish between raw-milk and thermalized-milk cheese, so a lot of the so-called raw-milk stuff sold here is actually made from thermalized (i.e. semipasteurized) milk.

              1 Reply
              1. re: carswell

                I've always declared the cheeses (mostly raw milk) imported from abroad and never had a problem at Customs. Wish I had some Oka now. (G)

              2. I went with my BIL & his family to Vancouver a couple weeks ago, driving from Seattle where my BIL lives. I found some treasured mangosteens and considered smuggling a few back as token gifts for friends in the SF Bay Area. But Gary's ominous warning of getting flagged forever was forefront on my mind and since I'd be a passenger in my BIL's car when we cross the border to get back in the US, I didn't want him to forever be flagged from now on. So I only bought enough for me to eat in Vancouver. When we crossed the border, the guard only asked to see our passports. I don't think he even asked if we had any fruits. Now I'll forever wish I had smuggled those mangosteens.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Alice Patis

                  If you were driving into California, you'd have to go through an agricultural inspection. You could always lie, but when it comes to fresh fruit, there are good reasons not to smuggle stuff in. It doesn't get the kind of media attention the Mediterranean fruit fly "crisis" got back in the '70s, but at any one time there are multiple quarantine zones in various fruit-producing parts of the state in an attempt to control/eradicate exotic pests. For example, right now there are eradication zones for:

                  Mexican fruit fly: Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Los Angeles counties;
                  Oriental Fruit Fly: Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Clara, Alameda, San Bernardino, Contra Costa and Santa Barbara counties;
                  Guava Fruit Fly: Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Diego and Santa Clara counties.
                  Mediterranean Fruit Fly: Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Clara, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties.

                  That's why they take smuggling of fruit into the state so seriously.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    The only place I've ever been stopped for an agricultural inspection in California was on I-5 on the way back to Nevada. It has been YEARS, more than 5, since you even had to slow down at the inspection station. Are there other inspection stations open these days? And are other states still trying to find "foreign" produce?

                    1. re: Dave Feldman

                      It's been a couple of years, but last time I drove through there were ag inspection stations on I-80 (outside of Truckee, near the CalNeva border) and on I-5 just south of the Cal-Oregon border. I've always been required to stop at those.

                2. I (voluntarily) turned in some fruit in CA at an airport recently, and they scanned my passport and really took some time to go over whatever the paperwork was. I'm a bit nervous that I'll be on the special-secret-check-for-fruit list or something from now on. Is it really a particular customs officer grudge issue, or is it more widespread than that?