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A prohibited taste of home

The work of the CBP officers can easily grab headlines with the right narcotics seizure or criminal arrest. But an agricultural inspector’s job well done doesn’t always occur in the spotlight — nor does it always smell good.

One recent evening, CBP Officer Agnes Smith bravely stuck her face directly into a plastic bag fresh off a flight from China. It turned out to be shredded squid that hadn’t been refrigerated for hours.

At a nearby table, fellow Officer Jennifer Jones, a K-9 handler, stood over a suitcase overflowing with random packages of meat and one zippered plastic bag with a chunky red liquid inside.

On the other side of the luggage, a short, plump woman had begun to shed crocodile tears. She mumbled quietly, sweat beading on her forehead, as she watched Officer Jones remove much of the suitcase’s meaty contents and set them aside for incineration.

“There’s no one else you can blame for this,” Officer Jones said matter-of-factly. “Your friend’s mom is not the one who has the bag. It’s your bag.”

The bag was sniffed out by Officer Jones‘ partner, Hudson, a 6-year-old beagle trained to find hidden fruits and meats. The woman was making her way through the arrivals gate just off a flight from Russia.

While some of the flora and fauna that pass through the checkpoint might seem odd traveling fare, many passengers are hoping to bring a “taste of home” with them, Officer Whittaker said.

Sometimes, that taste of home should stay there.

The officers at the agriculture checkpoint refer to a “hot sheet” sent from the assistant port director detailing the list of prohibited foods that must be confiscated and destroyed.

Fresh guavas from Africa might seem like tasty souvenirs, Officer Bandara Ratnayake explained, but the fruit flies that have laid eggs inside are a threat to American crops that have no immunity. The same goes for tree bark, flowers, rice and mangoes, all of which can house pesky insects.

A rotation of meats, plants and seeds ends up on the hot sheet, so the officers must stay informed of potential threats and what they look like. The specialists train for 10 weeks, and they also are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the biological sciences, such as entomology — the study of insects — or botany.

You are what you pack

Hot sheets can change on a daily basis, and officers have some discretion about handing out fines to unknowing passengers. The endangered-species list, however, is much more ironclad.

Items made from these species are often exotic and beautiful, but anyone who attempts to bring them across the American border faces a hefty fine, according to Kelly French, an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at Dulles.

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