Who wants some smelly French cheese?

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! *

© 2010 Myrabella

* Make sure to read the disclaimer at the end of this article.

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.

“No croissants?”

“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 …

Tomme de Savoie
Camembert © 2006 NJGJ

Reblochon © 2010 Myrabella
Roquefort © 2006 Airunp
Crottin de Chavignol © 2006 Markus Lindhol

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

12 thoughts on “Who wants some smelly French cheese?

  1. That is truly exciting news. I do have one question though. I’m not sure I know enough about cheese to know if it’s cured 60 days… Is that like a blanket generality unless you’re making homemade cheese? Or are there cheese that aren’t cured that long? And how would you know?

    1. Very good point. Cheeses do not have to be aged that long. In fact, from what I understand, most Bries and Camemberts in supermarkets in France are NOT aged that long, but you could find them in cheese shops. To avoid problems with soft cheeses purchased from supermarkets, I’d suggest buying one clearly marked “agé XX” showing at least 60 days of aging.

  2. That’s wonderful news indeed. One question arises, however: I love my cheese, like most French nationals, and miss it dearly here in the US, but I am wondering if tasting the divine goods in Seattle is worth unpacking a whole suitcase “fragranced” with eau-de-Reblochon? Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

    1. That is a very good question, Véronique! It reminds me of my backpack after an hour and half train trip back from Normandy … with Camembert, of course. I can’t imagine my bags with Reblochon, too! “Hey Mama, can we put all of our clothes in the washer right away?” LOL

  3. NEWSLETTER J.T.Hi Michael I thought you might be interested in this newsletter from Jean Taquet, a French/American who does provide some interesting insights into the French system. He actually has a business in Paris. Anyway, check out the section on “HOW TO FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS IN FRANCE”. I thought he was right on.

    Ok, I am off to France on Sunday and I am not looking forward to the 10+hr flight from San Francisco. Keep blogging. I enjoy reading your posts. Edie Jeannette

  4. Yeah… no. I wish.

    The CBP website ( https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/82 ) refers to the “USDA Animal Product Manual” so I went to check it out ( http://www.aphis.usda.gov/import_export/plants/manuals/ports/downloads/apm.pdf ) and table 3-14-7 tells us that to import unpasteurized cheese that is not from Canada, you need a “certificate endorsed by the Veterinary Service of the exporting country”.

    So if you’re just a guy crossing the border with a cheese in your suitcase, I’d avoid unpasteurized cheese since you most likely don’t have the required documentation.

    1. Thanks for the information, Simcoe! I wish I’d tried to bring some in during this trip just test this out (http://wp.me/p1jg1T-21i), but I didn’t get around to buying any. So, a veterinary certificate, huh? Next time I pass by a fromagerie, I’ll have to check to see how easy it is to get one of those and update you.


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