Photo: Ah, Camembert! © 2006 NJGJ
Well everyone, this is my first post from the American side of the Pond since arriving on Sunday afternoon, and have I got news for you! In fact, as far as I’m concerned, this is a “CNN Breaking News” kind of moment, so I can only apologize for not publishing it as soon as I got to a computer Sunday evening. But I had jetlag, you know, and it took me a couple of days to get back into the right rhythm … plus I had to find the right images online for the blogpost that wouldn’t end up infringing someone’s copyright and, then, WordPress started having formatting issues. Anyway, enough about the jetlag and the bloggers’ headaches, right? You just want to know what this juicy tidbit of information is. Well … <drumroll> …
Despite everything you may have heard or believed up to now,
you CAN bring smelly French cheese into the US!
Okay, so you know how I joke all the time about how U.S. Customs thinks unpasteurized cheese is a chemical weapon? The last time I did that, in fact, was just 9 days ago. I was saying that if I ever wanted my parents to taste a real Camembert, I’d have to smuggle it into the country under the noses of those luggage-sniffing dogs they have. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong … completely and utterly wrong … and I owe my current status of “harbinger of good news for American expats in France and their friends and family back home” to an unexpected encounter with a Customs agent at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Sunday afternoon.
So, how did this come about? Well, after dealing with an aggressively homophobic jackass of a passport control officer (another story for another day), we were hanging out in the baggage claim area waiting for the conveyor belt to start moving. Suddenly, I overheard a customs agent behind me asking to see peoples’ customs declarations. She was circulating through the crowd, asking folks at random. It was the first time I’d ever seen that, but I assumed they were pre-clearing folks to alleviate the bottleneck of travelers at the customs desk. As she approached us, I politely handed over my form.
“What food are you bringing in?” she asked me.
“Just some chocolate, some caramel, oh and some of those butter cookies,” I replied.
“Oh, no. No croissants,” I chuckled.
“Because you can, you know?”
Wait a minute. I can bring French pastries back for my parents?
“Really?” I asked in an incredulous tone.
“Oh yeah,” the agent assured me. “Croissants, pains au chocolat, any of that stuff is fine.”
“Oh, that’s good to know for the next time! I thought you guys would confiscate it and eat it later,” I joked.
“No, unfortunately, we don’t get to eat anything we confiscate,” she joked back.
“Just no cheese, huh?” I added, in an effort to sound like I was hip to the USDA‘s food importation regs — as if I hadn’t just demonstrated my ignorance.
“Oh no, you can bring that in, too. Up to six kilos, in fact.”
A look of utter disbelief descended over my face. Six kilos?! Six kilos is almost fifteen pounds!
“Really? Unpasteurized cheese? I can import unpasteurized French cheese? Like Camembert and stuff?”
“Yeah. Up to six kilos. Believe me. I know. I’m in Agriculture.”
I assumed she meant the “Agriculture” division of Customs and Border Protection, as opposed to … oh, I don’t know, “Monetary Units” or “Narcotics and Magic Mushrooms.”
She continued, “In fact, I have to work with my dogs all the time so they don’t false positive on cheese.”
She handed me back my form and went on her way.
You can imagine how my entire worldview shifted in that very moment … the prohibition on French cheese I had been operating under for years had suddenly been revealed to be an imaginary, self-imposed deprivation of one the veritable masterpieces of human alimentation! Almost immediately, I started making a mental shopping list of all the varieties of scrumptious French cheese I could bring back on our next trip …
Then I snapped out of it. “Wait a minute,” I thought, being the sceptic that I am, “How do I know she’s right? I mean, I can’t just take the word of any old Customs official because she says she’s in ‘Agriculture’ and she has to train her dogs to ignore cheese.” So I went online to the Customs and Border Protection website to verify that her revelation was legit, and—sure enough—there is no categorical prohibition on unpasteurized cheese. In fact, the website doesn’t even use the word “unpasteurized.” The problem, though, was that it also doesn’t lay out the rules precisely enough for me to feel comfortable dropping 20 … 30 … even 40 euros on cheese for my family that might get confiscated.
So I called.
Like many government agencies, it’s not easy to speak to a real person at Customs and Border Protection, so I settled for a pre-recorded message about bringing food products into the United States. And here are the magic words we’ve all been waiting for:
“Bakery items, candy, chocolate, and cured cheese are generally admissible.”
“Dairy items such as milk, yogurt, butter are generally admissible, although this is subject to change depending on disease outbreaks.”
“Hard-cured cheese, such as Parmesan or cheddar, and soft cheeses, such as Brie, that are cured for at least 60 days are generally admissible, but cottage cheese and cheese in water, such as ricotta and feta, are not.”
Ah! Such beautiful words have rarely been heard from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement!
So, dear fellow American expats and French friends visiting America, what that means is this …
“Go ahead! Buy that Tomme de Savoie! Buy that Reblochon! Buy that Camembert (as long as it’s been aged for 6o days)! There’s no need to leave it behind or leave it off your declaration forms and risk a $500 fine for lying. Bring it into America, and tell ‘em you’re doing it! And once you’re through Customs, pull that baguette, salted butter, and smelly cheese out of your suitcase and show America how to make a real sandwich!”
Bon appétit !
P.S. — Disclaimer: Of course, I can’t guarantee what will actually happen in Customs when you attempt to import cheese. I can only report the information I’ve learned from Customs and Border Protection as of this date. Currently, it seems that the key to successfully importing French cheese (especially soft cheese like Brie or Camembert) is that it be aged at least 60 days. Look for that information on the packaging and, of course, if there are any doubts, call and confirm with Customs and Border Protection at 1-877-227-5511 before you drop a wad of cash in an expensive fromagerie.
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved