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Customs watching Tampa International Airport for incoming food contraband

Pork is a particular concern because of the spread outside the United States of African swine fever.
Agriculture seized over the the last couple of days that are not permitted through customs are on display during a press conference at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prepared for millions of international travelers during the busy holiday travel season. CBP hosted a press conference to help explain how not to "pack a pest" and what items can not be brought into the country. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Agriculture seized over the the last couple of days that are not permitted through customs are on display during a press conference at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prepared for millions of international travelers during the busy holiday travel season. CBP hosted a press conference to help explain how not to "pack a pest" and what items can not be brought into the country. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 26

TAMPA — In just the last few days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection have intercepted a smorgasbord of restricted and prohibited agricultural products from international passengers arriving at Tampa International Airport:

Apples and bananas. Grapes. Peppers the size of ping pong balls. Cooked pigeons. A brown paper bag stuffed with bright green leaves. Bacon and soft goat’s cheese from the United Kingdom. Blood sausage from Denmark. Chunks of grilled pork still bearing the round holes of somebody’s kebab skewers.

Any of those, officials said, holds the risk of introducing new pests that could spread and wreck U.S. crops and food industries.

But these days pork is a particular concern because of the global spread of African swine fever, a disease that is harmless to humans but incurable and deadly for up to 100 percent of the wild boar and domestic pigs that it infects.

This blood sausage and bacon from Europe was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials over the the last couple of days at Tampa International Airport. Customs officials held a news conference Tuesday to explain how not to "pack a pest" and what items can not be brought into the country. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

The virus that causes the fever has spread through Russia and the several countries home to the Caucasus mountains, according to customs officials, and recently was introduced to China. It has never been reported in the United States, and officials say its arrival could threaten a domestic pig industry and U.S. pork exports valued at $6.5 billion a year.

“Right now there’s no way that we could eliminate that in Europe, so we want to make sure that it doesn’t come here,” said Christian Colmenares, a customs agricultural inspections supervisor. “It’s one of the things that, based on U.S. (Department of Agriculture) guidelines, we’re trying to make sure stays out of this country.”

So they stop pork, even cooked, when it is not processed and canned under established standards that make it shelf-stable.

Customs officials stop contraband agricultural products by asking travelers what they’re carrying, by X-raying bags and by having dogs trained to sniff out prohibited foods such as fruit and meat, while ignoring foods that are not, like baked goods. Fines for trying to bring in banned items can range up to $500.

Marten, a 3-year-old U.S. Customs and Border Protection detector dog, works to inspect bags for agricultural products that are not permitted to come through customs as a demonstration during a press conference at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prepared for millions of international travelers during the busy holiday travel season. The agency hosted a press conference to help explain how not to "pack a pest" and what items can not be brought into the country. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

Statistics for the quantity of agricultural products seized at Tampa International were not available Tuesday, customs officials said, but Colmenares said it’s “thousands and thousands of kilograms” and growing as Tampa International adds new international flights.

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“We want to make sure that when they’re coming to the United States they know what to bring, that they know not to pack a pest,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure that we keep all the unwanted pests and unwanted diseases out of this country."

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