From foods to fakes, customs officers are on the lookout 

In early December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers made a noteworthy bust at the San Francisco International Airport.

A passenger flying in from China attempted to smuggle in 8 kilograms of contraband.

The man wasn’t hiding illegal drugs in his luggage, however: He was nabbed trying to hide 17 bags of undeclared citrus peels.

The arrest prevented potential pests from entering the country, and highlighted the broad role of the border agency, created in 2003 under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The CBP is comprised of elements of the former U.S. Border Patrol, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Customs inspection division and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant and animal inspection division.

"We’ve pretty much seen it all here,” said Alvin Eder, a CBP supervisor stationed at the agency’s Air Mail Facility at SFO. “We’ve seen elephant toenails, leopard bones, some monkey feet and even a human hand. It’s amazing what we’ve stumbled across.”

Two years ago, a Hercules woman was caught illegally importing a real, mounted and stuffed tiger from Vietnam, a violation of a federal wildlife statute. On customs documents, she listed the item as a “stuffed toy.”

While the priorities of the CBP are to prevent terrorism in the United States and illegal border activity, the federal agents are also on the lookout for invasive plant species, illegal animals, undocumented fruit shipments and counterfeit goods. The myriad laws result in some pretty obscure tasks for CBP.

Last month, CBP officers in San Diego seized thousands of counterfeit toys — including fake Barbie dolls and toy Jeeps — worth more than $1.6 million entering the U.S. in commercial shipments.

“We are directly responsibly for enforcing 600 different laws for 40 different agencies,” said Ed Low, spokesman for the CBP’s San Francisco office. “Our primary focus is deterring terrorism, and everything else we do is a by-product of that.”

The CBP outfit at SFO airport is one of several CBP checking points in the Bay Area, which ranks as the country’s sixth-busiest port of entry point for international items. Along with its officers at the International Terminal for SFO and at the nearby Air Mail Facility, CBP officials are dispatched at the Seaport in Oakland, and at regional FedEx and DHL headquarters, among other locations.

Eder and his crew were kept busy with the agency’s extensive screening process for packages: All items are put through a radiation detection scanner, then sent through an X-ray machine. If a package appears to contain something suspicious, CBP officers open it up for a manual inspection.

On Dec. 30, officers came across a typically diverse set of illegal materials.

One package, coming from China, contained meat and sausage packets hidden inside of a set of teabags. The stuffed teabags were meticulously packaged and resealed in a commercial box normally found at a retail store.

Another package, from Laos, contained a set of large, unidentified seeds. When CBP officers cracked open the shells, they found dozens of tiny insects that had eaten out the inside of the seeds.

Other seized items included a rice wreath from Japan, turnips from the Netherlands and a pair of dried, miniature sea horses from China.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by what I see here,” said CBP Chief Jim Vick. “But it definitely keeps things interesting.”

CBP officials say that while it might not seem like a big deal to bring such items into the country, some items could include harmful bacteria, pests or diseases and some invasive plants can spread unchecked, choking out native flora.

At the International Terminal at SFO, a separate team of CBP workers, aided by a team of crime-sniffing beagles, inspect passengers arriving from foreign countries.

In May, CBP officials at the airport uncovered 400 grams of different plant seeds sewn within the pants of a man traveling from Vietnam. In addition to the seeds, the man was caught trying to smuggle in 250 grams of beef jerky.

The motivation for some of the smuggled items is benign — perhaps an immigrant wanting a little piece of home with them in their new surroundings, Low said. Other times, relatives send packages with undocumented herbal remedies from foreign countries, unaware that they violate federal shipping restrictions.

“We advise everyone to check our Web site to see what can legally come into the country,”  Low said. “Whether its international passengers or people shipping things to their family members, we try and make it clear — you should know before you go.”

Other items are intentionally concealed and hidden, designed to illegally sneak into the country and become part of the underground trade market. Last month in Los Angeles, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized 11,676 belts made to look like the upscale Burberry product. If the belts had been legitimate, the value would have been more than $3.2 million.

Beagle brigade has a nose for the goods

When passengers from international destinations arrive at the San Francisco International Airport, they’re greeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and a squad of cute, cuddly beagles.

The amiable canines aren’t a friendly welcome, however; they’re highly trained federal employees, skilled at sniffing out all forms of illegal contraband: Last year, for example, the hounds were able to pick up the scent of hundreds of plant seeds sewn within the pants of a man coming into the country from Vietnam.

The CBP has employed a “beagle brigade” at SFO for decades, according to agency spokesman Ed Low. They have an acute sense of smell and since they are good around people they don’t intimidate passengers, Low said.

With responsibilities ranging from sniffing out food, plants, drugs and fellow animals, the work of the Beagle Brigade is far from easy.

“They’re great dogs,” Low said. “We couldn’t do this job without them.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, by the numbers

2003: Year founded
57,519: Total employees
327: Ports under CBP surveillance
361 million: Persons inspected last fiscal year by CBP officials
18,000: Trade enforcement seizures last fiscal year
$300 million: Value of seized property
1.5 million: Pounds of meat, plant and animal products seized last fiscal year
166,727: Number of agricultural pests identified by CBP officers last fiscal year

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

No-fly list

U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized these items:

January 2009
What: 11 Fabergé ornaments
Where: JFK International Airport
Value: More than $250,000
Why: Failure to declare articles upon arrival into the United States

February 2009
What:
Long horn beetle larvae found in the wood packaging material from a shipment from Turkey
Where: Port of Savannah, Ga.
Value: Not available
Why: Identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as posing a significant risk to the forestry industry.

April 2009
What: 1,200 carats in 28 rough diamonds that originated from Sierra Leone
Where: JFK International Airport, New York
Value: Declared value of more than $800,000
Why: Did not have certification required by the Clean Diamond Trade Act

June 2009
What: Stuffed crocodile
Where: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
Value: Not available
Why: Violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

July 2008
What: Two pounds of dog food
Where: Washington-Dulles International Airport
Value: Not available
Why: Dog foods from other countries can pose a threat to American livestock, particularly if they are made of animal byproducts on continents that have suffered animal disease.

August 2009
What:
800 belt buckles bearing the image of Michael Jackson
Where: Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach
Value: Estimated manufacturer's suggested retail price of $6,992
Why: Counterfeit

November 2009
What: 36,000 pieces of counterfeit Major League Baseball and NBA team jerseys and shorts, along with other merchandise
Where: Port of Charleston, S.C.
Value: Total manufacturers suggested retail price of $1,655,280
Why: Counterfeit

Source: U. S. Customs and Border Protection

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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Will Reisman

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