How did they know he had a ham?
April 14, 2008 2:49 PM   Subscribe

How did US customs know he had a ham in his carry-on bag?

So this friend is coming home from a trip to Spain and in the airport there buys a nice little piece of jamon iberico, which he sticks in his carry-on bag. Somewhere along the way, it occurs to him that US customs asks if you have any meat or food products, but figures they must mean vegetables and raw meat, not a piece of ham thats been vacuum sealed and bought at an airport, promptly forgets about it and marks NO on the customs form.

At the US airport, he goes through passport control, picks up his luggage and hands the form to the customs guy. Without even looking at the bag, they immediately send him over to secondary agricultural inspection, where he confesses to the ham, which is tossed into a bin, his bags go through some kind of x-ray-like machine and he's allowed to leave with a verbal warning about bringing potentially dangerous foodstuffs into the United States and the $300 fine for not declaring them.

Here's the thing: he's been through that airport customs at least 25 times in the last couple of years and never once been sent to secondary inspection, so its statistically very unlikely this was a random search. The bag never went through any kind of inspection and there didn't seem to be any dogs sniffing around.

How did they know he had a ham? Some kind of secret x-ray while they check your passport? Invisible dogs? Secret sniffing devices set to detect the faint smell of vacuum-sealed meat as well as anthrax?
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This probably isn't what happened, but I was a train commuter a few years ago ('04, I think) in the Northeast US when the TSA was doing a trial of chemical sniffers for luggage and tickets. It routinely picked up certain types of hand lotion and ham or bologna sandwiches.
posted by cobaltnine at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2008

Here's the thing: he's been through that airport customs at least 25 times in the last couple of years and never once been sent to secondary inspection, so its statistically very unlikely this was a random search.

His personal anecdotal rate for (not) having been searched doesn't tell him much about the actual probability of being searched. One in twenty-five may well be better or worse than the (possibly itself variable) rate at which customs conducts random searches.

In other words, it's not clear from what you've said that there's any reason (other than the bad luck of having a ham on him when he did get selected) to be confident that it wasn't a random search.
posted by cortex at 2:55 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have no idea, but I will say that in 2003 my future wife brought a prosciutto and a mortadella (fully aware that they were not permitted) back from the trip where we met and made it through Atlanta customs without any difficulty much to the relief of some of the other passengers. My concern was that the nitrites used to cure said charcuterie might register as explosives in some detectors; perhaps something like that happened to your friend.
posted by TedW at 2:56 PM on April 14, 2008

posted by gyusan at 2:56 PM on April 14, 2008

Maybe they were checking bags before they came up the luggage belt to be collected, and they were marking them somehow?

I've seen the very cute sniffer dogs before, and it seems like with them they would bust you on the spot, not at the secondary inspection. It's pretty obvious that the dog is sniffing your bag and responding (or not), and there is an agent leading him around.
posted by smackfu at 3:04 PM on April 14, 2008

I have a bunch of friends from Spain who have all been caught trying to smuggle ham back into the U.S.

Maybe they check everyone coming in from Spain, and assume that those who claim to be flying ham-free are lying.
posted by emd3737 at 3:18 PM on April 14, 2008 [6 favorites]

My eight-year-old son and I, returning from Rome, went through a random search when we went through customs at Logan Airport, in 1996. At that time at least they told us very clearly that it was a random event. From what you've said however this may very well have just been a random search.
posted by thomas144 at 3:18 PM on April 14, 2008

The bag never went through any kind of inspection

How does he know this? My bag has been thoroughly searched but I was unaware of it until I opened it in the hotel room and found a nice little note.
posted by desjardins at 3:19 PM on April 14, 2008

What makes you think they leave notes in every bag they search?
posted by toomuchpete at 3:38 PM on April 14, 2008

The question specifies that the ham was in a carry-on; I'm presuming that means that a physical search about which he was not aware is out of the question.
posted by cortex at 3:40 PM on April 14, 2008

Did they scan the boarding pass at the duty-free where he bought the ham?
posted by Rumple at 5:03 PM on April 14, 2008

I vote that it was a totally random event and you are just experiencing some confirmation bias...

On the other hand, maybe your friend has the shifty-eyed ham-smuggler look going on, and so they decided to randomly pick him because he was acting nervous?
posted by ranglin at 5:55 PM on April 14, 2008

Everyone who goes to Spain brings back ham.
posted by Caviar at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wonder if there was anything in the way your friend was acting that made the customs agent just ever so slightly suspicious? I know you said your friend "forgot about it" after sticking the ham in his bag, but maybe it was still tickling the back of his mind just enough for him to look a little bit iffy to an experienced customs agent? FWIW, I've been sent for secondary inspection before without having anything inappropriate on me at all, the original customs person said I just seemed "suspiciously nervous" to her (heh, pitifully enough, it was just that I feel rather high-strung ANY time I'm around "officials" (or sometimes even just new people in general), I guess "suspiciously nervous" is just part of who I am ... how mortifying!) - my point being, I don't think there's any real penalty to a customs agent for detecting what turns out to be a "false positive," so if there was anything a little uneasy in your friend's demeanor it probably didn't hurt that agent to just send them along for extra checking just in case - and let's face it, what could make a person more nervous than illicit hamage?
posted by zeph at 6:15 PM on April 14, 2008

the same happened to me once, carrying rashers back from Ireland a few years ago. not one to be found out...the next time I was carrying those ridiculously delicious blood sausages (Clonakilty) we call 'pudding'. this time I bought two batches: one I placed at the top of my bag, the other (larger) one at the bottom of my bag. so when they pulled me over with my furtive sausage smuggler look, I sighed, dug my hand into the bag and pulled out the top batch of delicious Clonakilty black and white pudding, apologized and dutifully handed over same and took the cummuppence of a verbal warning.

just goes to show the lengths people go to for a decent breakfast.

ps. am not affiliated with Clonakilty in any way, except emotionally
posted by lapsang at 6:28 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your "he's been through that airport customs at least 25 times in the last couple of years" statement actually makes me MORE inclined to think that this was just the statistical luck of the draw. (Lucky for the airport hound who ended up getting that ham, anyway.)

Also..."So this friend"? It was you, wasn't it? Dirty ham-smuggler.
posted by greenland at 6:43 PM on April 14, 2008

Best answer: It could have been a sniffer dog. At Auckland Airport in New Zealand, where we are *very* fanatical about our 'agricultural security', we have cute little innocent looking beagles that are actually highly trained fruit and meat sniffers.

They are trained to sit when they spot a scent, so it all looks very innocent. Dog wanders along the line of people, dog sits down next to a bag, dog wanders off. But you've been tagged as having something like fruit or meat or plants in your bag.
posted by pivotal at 7:04 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

From Taiwan, it's all about trying to smuggle the beef jerky back with you into the United States. Every time you hear of someone going to Taiwan, by default the conversation goes towards how the heck to smuggle beef jerky without getting caught. Many have tried it, and only one has ever succeeded amongst my parents friends.

I've never seen a dog out at an airport before, but dog's are trained for all sorts of things- sniffing out where you have mold in the house, where bed bugs could be hiding, etc- so that sounds like the best bet.
posted by Jimmie at 7:42 PM on April 14, 2008

Followed from the store in the airport to the plane by an undercover sausage detective working for the us govt in Spain? Seriously.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:28 PM on April 14, 2008

On the way home to Canada after a year in India, my boyfriend wanted to bring a particular fruit with him. A jamun (sp?) fruit? Anyway, he'd thought he take a chance and bought a whole crate before getting on the flight in Delhi and worse comes to worse he'd eat them all on the plane or hand them out and the entire flight would get fresh fruit. At this point, he wasn't even sure he'd be allowed onto the plane with a crate of fresh fruit, but no one bat an eye. Fine. Whatever. He changed planes in Dubai, then again in London. He carried it, declared it and no one stopped him. He thought, this is ridiculous, there is no way that I can take a crate of fresh fruit from India to Canada. He was allowed onto the flight at Heathrow, but really thought he would be stopped at Canadian customs.

Customs Officer: Anything to declare?
Boyfriend: Yes, this crate of fresh fruit that is from India.
Customs Officer: That's where this flight originated?
Boyfriend: Yes. (Oh, bye bye fruit....)
Customs Officer: You came through London.
Boyfriend: Yes. (Why is he asking this?)

Customs Officer peers inside the crate, looks at my boyfriend and then waves him through!!!

We have no explanation of why this was allowed to happen, but I did enjoy the fruit (for about a week later.)
posted by typewriter at 8:57 PM on April 14, 2008

At Auckland Airport in New Zealand, where we are *very* fanatical about our 'agricultural security', we have cute little innocent looking beagles that are actually highly trained fruit and meat sniffers.

This would be the same airport where they spray aircraft with pesticide as soon as they land, before anyone is allowed to deplane.
posted by oaf at 4:28 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: I definitely feel better about all those times I stood in line holding my shoes and spare change now that I know we've halted the flow of cured-meat loving jihadists.
posted by doppleradar at 7:51 PM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: Hm, no clear convincing (at least to me) answer emerges.

It seems that dogs are the most common means of detecting food so in the absence of an alternative I'd suspect there might have been an unnoticed (or hidden?) dog somewhere sniffing the air who signaled the presence of something suspicious. Even vacuum-packed, its not a subtle smell.

dopple - you generalize with "cured meat" but the idea of jihadists carrying ham makes me laugh.

greenland - I'm shocked at your suspicious nature.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 3:03 PM on April 16, 2008

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