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Customs Is Cracking Down on Forbidden Fruits

March 22, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Sherlock and Dr. Watson are waiting at the airport in San Francisco. Jackpot and Sam are at JFK, and Becky and Daisy Mae are expecting you at LAX. John Henry is in Miami, and Randy waits in Seattle.

If you're returning from a trip abroad to any one of these airports, chances are good that these special teams will check your bags carefully.

They're part of the "beagle brigade," a group of specially trained dogs dressed in bright green jackets, strategically placed at airports around the United States.

No, they're not looking for drugs. Beagle Brigade is the federal government's first nationwide use of passively trained detector dogs, looking for prohibited meat and fruit in the baggage of overseas travelers.

Most tourists don't realize it until it's too late, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces strict regulations on the importation of most foreign meats, fruits and vegetables.

It Only Takes One

"We worry a lot about this," says Bonnie Aikman, spokesman for the USDA. "For example," she says, "just one orange carried by an incoming passenger may have introduced the Mediterranean fruit fly to California in 1980. More than $100 million was spent by the USDA and the state of California before the fly was eradicated.

"We're particularly concerned about fresh fruit, meats, vegetables, plants in soil and pet birds."

And the dogs are there to assist the USDA inspectors for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

In 1985 APHIS inspectors checked 261,538 incoming planes. More than a million separate interceptions of illegal agricultural products were made.

"A lot of people think you can bring back a canned ham. But you can't unless the can says specifically that it's shelf stable without refrigeration. If it doesn't, you can't do it."

Over the years, APHIS inspectors have been able to target certain airlines and flights as having a high likelihood of illegal goods.

Philippine Airlines flights from Manila record a high number of interceptions of meat and fresh fruit. TACA, the Costa Rican airline, also scores high in this department. And Lufthansa's daily arrivals from Frankfurt are affectionately known by inspectors as the sausage flights.

Salami smugglers, beware: "These dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell," says Dave Thompson, assistant officer in charge of the USDA in Los Angeles. The dogs are trained for nine weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex., followed by field training at airports focusing on beef, pork, mangoes and citrus. "The dogs have a success rate of more than 89%."

In a typical day, Thompson's dogs will find chestnuts, sand pears, mangoes, reptile eggs and, of course, salami and sausages.

The dogs find salami packed in empty tea cans, mangoes stuffed into empty cans of olive oil.

One traveler's indiscretion was easy to see. Her coat was dripping blood. "When we inspected it," Thompson reports, "we found that she had skinned a rabbit and had stuffed it into the lining of her coat.

"We caught one guy from Yugoslavia who tried to bring in dozens of figs, but instead of giving them to us, he just sat down and ate the whole bag."

Another traveler was caught with a purse stuffed with mangoes. (Where do all the mangoes go, once confiscated? The USDA puts them into a steam sterilizer at 212 degrees for two hours and then buries them under eight feet of earth.)

And now the USDA is doing more than just confiscating the bad apples. In 1984 the department won approval to levy civil penalties against passengers bringing in prohibited agricultural products.

The fines are $25 or $50. The amounts may seem small, but by next month the government will have collected more than $1.5 million in fines.

How does one know which foods are acceptable? USDA publishes a 17-page booklet. It specifically lists items that can and cannot be brought back. For your copy, write to Travelers' Tips, USDA-APHIS, 700 Federal Building, Hyattsville, Md. 20782.

But it's not just agricultural products that get stopped upon arrival back into the United States. More than 700 species of animals and plants are officially listed as endangered or threatened under U.S. law. And with extremely limited exceptions, none can be imported.

Not too long ago a woman deplaning in Los Angeles on a Lufthansa flight was stopped by authorities because she was wearing a leopard-skin coat. She was told that importing the coat is illegal.

The woman had spent thousands of dollars for the coat, and immediately offered to go back on the same aircraft, fly back to Germany and return it. Too late. The coat was confiscated.

A Boston couple, returning to Dallas from Mexico on their way home, had a similar experience. Customs agents asked them what they had bought on their trip abroad. The couple showed the agents their purchases, which included a belt and pair of boots the husband was wearing.

But the boots and belt were made from turtle, an endangered species, and were confiscated.

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