My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Jamaica. As this is where we grew up, we returned laden with several food products that would allow us to continue to experience Jamaican cuisine ever so often.


Everything we imported was allowable. However, the airport customs agents carefully prodded and poked our parcels before we were allowed to leave with them.

This experience reminded me of a statement from an audience member at a conference where I presented on the African Growth & Opportunities Act (AGOA) program.  She shared, “Our food smells different and that causes problems with US Customs.” To avoid such problems, food importers — educate US Customs about your products!

“Problems” can mean having your shipment detained, opened and inspected, and re-exported or destroyed.

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting the public’s health by ensuring that the U.S. food supply is safe and secure. The agency implements and enforces related laws and regulations, such as the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic Act. The FDA is also stationed at ports throughout the country where agents have the authority to inspect, detain, and even destroy food, and other products entering the country.

In 2010, approximately 24 million shipments of products that the FDA has the authority to regulate passed through the nation’s ports. The FDA physically examined about two percent (2%) of these shipments. They rely heavily on their sense of smell, as well as the product’s appearance, taste and feel to determine whether it is good or bad.

So, imagine that a shipment of a food product from your country is passing through a US port. A CBP agent, uninitiated to the smell of your food product (imagine what that could be), picks out the shipment and sends it over to the FDA for inspection. The FDA inspector smells it, opens, prods and pokes the package, hopefully reads the labeling. The inspector can determine that it’s safe after all. The shipment is then sent on its way, but in torn packaging. It may also have been delayed for several days while this process occurs. An alternative scenario is that the inspector determines this product is unsafe and marks it for destruction.

Here is a third alternative scenario. The importer takes the step to educate CBP and FDA about the product. This means contacting the agency and visiting with samples and educational information to explain the product. Repeat as often as necessary. As the agents become familiar with the product, the problem will diminish and possibly disappear.

Just as my husband and I were allowed to import all of our food parcels, CBP and FDA agents would prefer that your shipments arrive at their intended destination. They just want to do their part to ensure that the contents pose no danger to the recipients.

Food importers — educate US Customs about your products! Contact us to learn how.

DevelopTradeLaw, LLC provides business-oriented advice to the legal challenges that face companies doing business internationally. Contact us for more information or advice on the topic of this article.