News & Politics

Meet Dulles’ Airport’s Prosciutto Police

Traveling abroad this summer? You may be one of the 10,000 travelers who pass through Dulles airport on any given day. But don’t be the one who gets slapped with a $300 fine for trying to smuggle foreign food past customs.

A rare look behind the scenes at the team of US Customs and Border Protection officers who inspect incoming luggage for prohibited food items showed the wide variety of goods they encounter in a given day. On a recent morning, Officer Siaos Meleisea, who holds an advanced degree in botany, identified an Ethiopian passenger’s yebeg wat—or lamb stew—by recognizing the bones in the package. Earlier that day, a raw chicken—feathered and de-beaked but otherwise intact—was found in a suitcase that came from Central America.

Not all food products are created equal in the eyes of the law: Beef is okay from Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina but not the United Kingdom because of the 2004 mad-cow scare. Avian flu restricts any poultry and eggs from several Asian countries, but cooked chicken flies through customs if it’s from El Salvador.

At Dulles, Officer Brian Pittack estimates that 54 pounds of food a day are confiscated, some incinerated at 1,200 degrees while the “muffin monster”—an industrial-size garbage disposal—eats all the produce.

The quarantined containers from a single day’s haul included offal-filled Scottish haggis, canned Finnish reindeer, a Vietnamese bag of Chinese-cabbage seeds, the Central American jocote (a green crabapplelike fruit), a thin box of Italian San Daniele prosciutto, and Bullen’s pilsnerkorv, a Swedish wiener.

So what passed the customs test? One Cameroonian’s hard suitcase spilling over with whole dried fish.

What's the strangest thing you've had confiscated—or smuggled through? Sound off in the comments. 

This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Society Photos