Bringing tamales into the US from Mexico
July 30, 2014 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently in Mexico and will be returning home to the US in about a week. I'd like to bring back some tamales to share with my family, but I'm not sure whether or not I can bring them through customs. I've read the guidelines here and here, but I'm still not sure.

My plan would be to buy about 6 chicken and/or veggie tamales a few days before I leave, freeze them, transport them in my luggage, then declare them and hope for the best. But if I definitely won't be able to get them through customs, then I won't bother.

Is this something that will attract a lot of scrutiny, or are they likely to not care very much?

I'm not clear on which parts of the above guidelines apply to commercial use / large quantities, and which apply to small amounts for personal use. Some parts seem to say that all cooked meat is prohibited from entering the US, but later parts of the second link says that "cooked pork in small amounts for a meal" is okay, and that stringent poultry requirements don't apply to "poultry meat products intended for personal consumption (poultry meat and meat products in passenger baggage or carry-on, personal meals)." So those sentences seem to suggest that meat is fine as long as it's a small amount for personal consumption, which would apply to me. I don't see anything besides meat that would be prohibited, so it seems like veggie tamales might be okay regardless.

Does anyone have experience bringing small amounts of food into the US from Mexico? The tamales are cheap so I'll probably just go for it and throw them out if I have to, but I'd love to get an idea of what to expect.
posted by mekily to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total)
I have brought in food from foreign countries many times and it's usually no problem if you're not coming from an area with known hazards, and the food has been properly packaged (for instance, frozen). Be sure to declare them. The inspector will probably let them through. If he doesn't, well, as you said, tamales are cheap... but delicious, so worth trying.
posted by ubiquity at 9:16 AM on July 30, 2014

Don't bring any haggis tamales, and you should be fine.
posted by hwyengr at 9:34 AM on July 30, 2014

Are you coming in to California? Their regulations are much stricter than the rest of the US, especially for produce. This link also indicates that pork isn't allowed. I would call the USDA to check, and the CA dept of food and ag if you're coming through there.
posted by umwhat at 10:25 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Is this something that will attract a lot of scrutiny, or are they likely to not care very much?"

Maybe if you are sneaky and yes if you aren't.

Tell them what you said here, and tell them before they find them.

"Erm, I'd like to bring back some tamales to share with my family, but I'm not sure whether or not I can bring them through customs."

If you don't declare them and get caught they will be insulted, rightly so as that threatens their employment. If you do declare them and are denied the worst that will happen is oh well you lose a few tamales.

In my experience which is mostly passing between the US and Canada the people who are at the actual border have a lot of discretion and appreciate honesty.
posted by vapidave at 3:17 PM on July 30, 2014

I've brought food into the US many times. Pork is NOT allowed in any way, but I've never had problems with any other meat. Have the tamales identified as chicken or whatever they are made of.
Note that if you are flying, customs might not give you any problems but airport security has different rules for food, frozen stuff and the like.
Be careful with keeping them cold, as chicken goes bad easily!
posted by CrazyLemonade at 5:22 PM on July 30, 2014

I cross the border by land all the time between Tijuana and San Diego. I tend not to carry more than a torta but people in line will have a personal use size plate of tamales and don't seem to get any extra scrutiny. You will be asked if you're "bringing anything back" and you should say some vegetable tamales and you'll be on your way. At least at my local port of entry they have an x-ray for luggage and sometimes drug dogs. If your tamales smell (to the dog) like weed, you will not have a good time.
posted by birdherder at 5:35 PM on July 30, 2014

Thanks for the advice, everyone -- I think I'll go for it and see what happens. I'm not planning to bring any with pork, so at least that part should be okay.

umwhat, I am indeed going to California -- do you know if there's anywhere that CA-specific regulations are listed online? I wasn't able to find them by googling.
posted by mekily at 6:02 PM on July 30, 2014

i used to travel between san diego/tijuana by car quite a bit. Beef, chicken, pineapple and rajas+cheese tamales were just fine. If you're traveling by car or foot, the cbp agent asks you what you're bringing back, if anything. I've said countless times "a couple tamales" and have always been waved through. In college between '01-'05, i used to fly out of san diego with about two dozen frozen tamales to boston all the time.

You shouldn't have to worry about any california regulations and as long as you're not bringing any vegetables that are the cbp quarantine blacklist, you should be ok. Also, seconding that tamales are pretty inexpensive, so it's not a massive loss if customs takes them (maybe they're just craving a tamale?)
posted by nsfmc at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2014

Update: Success!

I ended up bringing 8 tamales from Mexico (4 chicken, 4 veggie), double-bagged and frozen. On the customs form I checked 'yes' for the "food/fruits/vegetables" category and the "meat/animal-products" category.

At immigration, after checking my passport he glanced at my form and asked what kind of food I had. I told him it was just a few tamales for personal food and he said that was fine.

At customs she asked me a few more questions about the tamales (basically to confirm there was no beef or pork in them) and then asked to see them, so I dug them out, she glanced at the bag, and then said it was fine.
posted by mekily at 3:27 PM on August 10, 2014

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