An Ethiopian traveler's plan to share a home-cooked meal with Seattleites was foiled last week when customs agents at Dulles Airport confiscated her 15 bags of prepared sheep meat.
A Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) staffer characterized the seizure as "extraordinarily unique" because of the quantity of food involved.
"That's an awful lot of food product to stuff inside one's baggage," Christopher Hess, CBP Port Director for the Port of Washington, said in a statement.
In an era when checked luggage has become a costly indulgence, the Seattle-bound traveler's six suitcases attracted the attention of agriculture specialists. According to CBP spokesperson Steve Sapp, specialists found 88 pounds of stew after the traveler declared she had food in her bags.
"I guess it was for a big meal," Sapp speculates. "I don't know if she has a large community or family in Seattle, but it could be she was just bringing gravy from home."
Sapp adds it's not unusual to find traditional specialties in suitcases around the holidays, but specialists rarely uncover enough food to feed the U.S. Congress. Language barriers prevented investigators from conducting a thorough interview, so it's unknown why the traveler was transporting so much of what looks like sega wat in photographs released by the agency.
As Sapp points out, the only way for international travelers to learn what they can and can't bring into the country is to visit CBP's website. But many travelers don't have Internet access or don't bother researching custom laws before embarking on a trip. "I visit Jamaica every two or three years, and I don't go to Jamaica's website," Sapp says.
To prevent the spread of exotic animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth, federal law prohibits the importation of meat from certain countries.
"We don't want an accidental release, so we're always on watch," Sapp says.
The confiscated stew was incinerated. The traveler, sans sheep meat, continued her trip to Seattle.