Anything to Declare? The Story of a Chorizo at Customs

Chorizo
The chorizo that met it’s untimely demise.

One of the most common questions people ask me on our Madrid Food Tours is what foods they are allowed to bring back with them to their respective countries. Unfortunately, I only know about US laws, and I always hate to be the one to break the news.

Generally we are in a small shop or market, and they’re eyeing the jamón. Jamón (cured ham) is one Spain’s most incredible delicacies, especially when you go for the pricey Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (Acorn fed Iberian ham). Most people take one bite and are either consumed by greedy self-interest (they want to buy 10 packages for themselves) or with the kind hearted urge to share this secret with their friends and family (they want to buy as gifts).

Nevertheless, I have to be the one to break the awful news that they can’t buy any ham at all, disappointing the tourists, and my eager ham slicing friend, Jesús, who is anticipating a potential sale.

Ham Slicer
A market ham slicer in San Miguel.

Some people ignore my advice to gorge on ham while in Spain and then try to erase its existence from their mind. They insist that they’ll get it back, wrapped in perfumed blankets or rolled into some poster container.

I know better.

It was Christmas of 2009 when I tried sneaking a chorizo past US Customs. The humble 3€ chorizo nearly cost me $200 in fines. Every international airport has cute little dogs who come around sniffing for forbidden fruit (literally). The only times I’ve been caught by the dogs were when I’ve forgotten I had orange peel or some grapes in my purse from the flight. It’s always quite mortifying when the little dog comes and sits by your feet, and the rest of the people in baggage claim stare at you like you’re surely a drug trafficker.

But in 2009 it wasn’t the beagle that got me. It was my inability to lie! After getting off the plane and going through immigration there was another check that isn’t always there. One by one a very intimidating woman asked us if we were transporting food. I said “no” but I’m sure my face said otherwise. I was pulled out of line for the special inspection.

After twenty minutes of questions and near insults “You don’t know how to read?” “Why were you visiting Morocco?” etc. I was to pay up, $200 if I remember correctly. But after taking the trouble to write up the fine, the customs official ripped up the ticket, and just like he’d done with the evil chorizo, he slammed it into the trash. “Go” he said, “it’s Christmas”.

If I’d been a rich woman I would’ve paid the fine anyway, as a way of standing up to someone who had treated me like dirt for the prior twenty minutes– but I was a poor English teacher and gladly walked away, chorizo-less, but with my bank account still in tact.

Since then I’ve never even thought about bringing prohibited foods back into the US. It just isn’t worth it, and between the dogs and the extra checks, I’d say the chances of being caught are quite high.

For information on what you can/cannot bring into the US:

Travelers Bringing Food into the US for Personal Use (and note, the maximum fine is $10,000!)

I found this interesting infographic about some other things people have failed to declare:

Anything To Declare? An infographic by the team at NetVoucherCodes.co.uk

What about you guys? Do you have a funny story about passing through customs?

Comments

  1. The only time I was caught was because I couldn’t lie either. It was trying to bring my grandma famous tamales. She made some pork ones and I said it instead of saying they were filled with vegetables lol. It was embarrassing and I cried because I really wanted to share her tamales with my friends in DC.

    The second time I was caught, not lying but ignorance. I didn’t know you couldn’t bring fruits to Panama. I guess drug traffickers can import humans, drugs and weapons, but no fruits OMG DON’T YOU DARE. You can say I’m still mad. I was bringing some apples to my dad, but oh well 🙂

    I’ll take your advice if I ever travel to Spain 🙂

  2. I’ve brought my dad elk, moose, and bear salami twice in the last year. But they were all shrink wrapped and I didn’t declare them. We did have a friend one time that insisted on trying to bring a coconut home from Hawaii. He definitely didn’t make it very far!

  3. Wow, I didn’t know that food-specifically cured meats- from Spain was a no-no for customs. I did bring some items back with me (cake mix that my Spanish roommate thought that I’d like since it was “American” I didn’t but wanted to be nice), my own special jellies that I took with me from my home state to Spain but didn’t find anyone to give it away to…so I just brought them back in my suitcase. I didn’t declare those things. What I did declare was the bottle of sherry (that’s not sold at my local store)/sherry wine goblets back with me. I wanted to bring a couple smaller bottles of Rioja but didn’t have enough room. It was my first customs experience ever…and the guy asked me to be sure “no food from Spain?” I answered “no” and was able to pass through.

  4. It really amazes me at the weird rules different countries employ at customs. I once did a service trip in Arizona during spring break my sophomore year. One of the girls was a bit kooky and she bought a rain stick from some kind of cheesy souvenir shop. I really thought they would take it away at security because well, it could have doubled as a weapon! (I got a pointy umbrella taken away in Lisbon once, so I’ve made it a rule to never pack an umbrella in carry on–even the collapsible kind) But no, she was allowed to board with it!

  5. Crazy! I’ve never had to lie, and I too am a terrible liar.

    I usually bring back some cheese and wine, along with some homemade (!) salchichón, my vice .. and I’ve never been questioned. (Nor has Mario, and he’s also brought some with him!) Thank goodness …

  6. This post is too funny! My boyfriend got caught trying to smuggle chorizo in to the US as well, luckily he also escaped a fine. Though they appear to throw it in the trash, we were betting the employees were having a feast on forbidden delicacies later that night!

  7. I have been trying to Google up Spanish chorizo bought in Tijuana. I bought about $25 worth to give to my family but it was immediately confiscated. I protested over it, it’s Spanish, not Mexican! I bought so much the interior of my car still smelled like chorizo after the two hour drive from the border without the chorizo. I’m half Spanish and, gosh, love the cured stuff from Spain. Now, it’s back to the overpriced chorizo from the gourmet supermarket. 🙁

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