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.
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.
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.
“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."