On a wintry morning some years ago, I landed in Atlanta with my wife and daughters after a flight from Manaus, Brazil, deep in the Amazon rain forest.
Manaus had been the last stop on a two-week family vacation that brought us from the usual tourist haunts to places few Americans get a chance to see. We spent one day with local guides who took us hiking through jungle trails and flooded caves, with many sightings of noisy monkeys, huge shimmering butterflies and four-foot-tall ant nests along the way. We passed another afternoon on the Amazon and one of its tributaries, visiting local villages built entirely on rafts anchored in the river so they could rise and fall with its seasonal flows and avoid flooding. On yet another trip we visited a local farm producing exotic tropical fruits, which an agronomist explained to us.
So as we prepared to land in the United States, I confronted the usual Customs declaration form with somewhat more attention than usual. Many travelers quickly and often unthinkingly check “no” to the questions asking whether they are carrying fruit, meat or animal products, or whether they have been on a farm or ranch or pasture. While such answers are true more often than not, some travelers are likely less forthcoming because, while they don’t know what will happen if they answer “yes,” they assume it will be something bad and they do not care to find out.
But ours was not even a close call. We had just spent the better part of a day on a farm under an equatorial sun. I lived in Montana many years ago and I live in Florida now, so I know how devastating a single pathogen can be when a traveler unwittingly carries it across borders and, especially, between continents. Besides, it was not even 6 a.m. and everyone in our group had plenty of time before their connecting flights. There was no reason not to be forthcoming.
So I disclosed our recent itinerary on the form, and explained the details to the agent at Customs. He sent us marching down a long corridor to a secondary inspection room. We were the only travelers there. Another Customs agent pulled out a large cardboard box to show us examples of items that had been confiscated from other travelers. I remember feathered headdresses from the Andes were surprisingly popular, as were ivory carvings, whose possession is banned in the U.S. to protect wildlife.
We may have had to walk through a shallow disinfectant bath to clean any lingering pathogens off of our shoes. I don’t recall specifics from that particular morning because I have done this several times, usually after similar overnight flights. But the agent was satisfied that we were being open about our experiences, and that we had not actually handled any animals or feed, or otherwise acted in ways likely to bring us into contact with something dangerous to American crops. We cleared Customs a few minutes later, with plenty of time for breakfast before our next flights.
It is perfectly conceivable that, had I not honestly volunteered the information about our trip, my family and I could have passed through Customs without anyone noticing. But protecting American agriculture is no light task and, as a recent news story illustrates, Customs agents are prepared to take infractions seriously.
Crystal Tadlock chose not to eat an apple that she received from the Delta Air Lines crew of her flight from Paris to Minneapolis, but thought she might want a snack on her connecting flight to Denver. However, she failed to declare the apple before going through Customs. During a random search, an agent discovered the fruit and fined Tadlock $500.
The story gained traction in the media, possibly because the punishment seems draconian out of context. Tadlock pointed out that the apple was still in a Delta-branded plastic bag. “It’s really unfortunate someone has to go through that and be treated like a criminal over a piece of fruit,” she told KDVR, a Denver-area news station. Tadlock filed a complaint with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and expressed the hope that the attention her story has gained will prompt Delta to remind passengers that food received on a flight still must be declared, just as food purchased in the flight’s country of origin.
Setting aside the question of how well air travelers listen to crew announcements in the first place, all international arrival points in the U.S. make it very clear that produce is not allowed and usually provide receptacles for disposing of contraband if necessary. Fruit is also the first item mentioned on the Customs declaration form. Moreover, while Tadlock’s personal frustration may be understandable, part of the reason her first offense was penalized so harshly was that she was a member of the Global Entry program, which allows for expedited security checks. In addition to the $500 fine, Tadlock lost her status due to the infraction. (As The Independent observed, it could have been worse; the maximum penalty for bringing an undeclared food item into the U.S. is $10,000.)
Fruits like apples can harbor both diseases and pests, which may pose serious threats to farmers. My home state of Florida has grappled with the fallout of citrus greening disease. In combination with Hurricane Irma last year, the disease caused the worst year for Florida oranges since 1945. Greening disease is caused by bacteria, transmitted via insect. The disease was first identified in 1929, but didn’t reach the U.S. until the mid-2000s. Since then, citrus growers in Florida and elsewhere have taken costly steps, including destroying infected trees by the hundreds of thousands, to try to prevent the disease from wiping out crops wholesale. Leaders in the industry have discussed altering oranges’ DNA in pursuit of resistance to the bacteria, and in 2017 Bayer AG announced it would work with a Florida-based nonprofit to develop treatments to combat citrus greening.
Citrus greening disease is a prominent example of what can happen when agricultural maladies cross borders, but it is far from the only one. The emerald ash borer, an insect native to northeast Asia, has already killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America, and prospects for stopping its spread are dim now that it has been reported in 32 states and three Canadian provinces. And a strain of fungal infection called Panama Disease, first identified in Southeast Asia, threatens to wipe out commercial bananas as we know them if it makes the jump to Latin America before growers find a workable solution in the form increased genetic diversity, genetic engineering or both.
The United States’ rules forbidding foreign produce in most circumstances are harsh, but hardly unique. And considering the potential consequences, they are not arbitrary. The next time your flight attendant hands you a Customs form, take a moment to pay attention and to answer honestly. And leave any uneaten apples behind.