Can I Bring Home Wine, Cheese, or Ham from Spain?

My girlfriend Marissa, who's traveling to Barcelona, Spain, asked me if she could bring home to Chicago some wine, cheese, or its famous ham as a delicious souvenir?  The answer, summarized:

  1. Very few Spanish hams allowed. Might as well buy it in the US.
  2. Solid cheese is allowed in the US, some particular soft cheeses are also good. Cheese in liquid or that can be poured, likely not good. Nothing with meat. (See #1.) Cheese with meat equals no bueno.
  3. If you're over the age of 21, the general rule is a liter of alcohol allowable for personal use. But each state regulates alcohol sales independently. To find the amount of alcohol residents are allowed to bring back, contact your state's Alcohol Beverage Control Board. UPDATE, 23 March 2012, 1:30 PM CST: Illinois residents can bring back one gallon (3.785 Liters) of alcohol according to the IL Liquor Control Commission.

A little birdie has also suggested that one might easily get away with bringing any kind of meat, cheese or other food products back to the United States if properly wrapped and undeclared on your customs form. This might be true. I am not recommending you break our good country's laws. The penalty is up to $10,000 for undeclared foodstuffs. The choice is yours.

If you want to read the completely fascinating research that ensued, please be my guest! Or watch part of this hilarious episode, "Return Home From Europe" from the classic sitcom, I Love Lucy. 
Happy eating!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujMpb6dLFOM?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

1. Put the Ham Down. Or Shove it Down Your Gullet Before you Reach the US. I like pork products. They are all lovely and beautiful in my eyes. But, says the US Customs and Border Protection(part of the US Department of Homeland Security):

In very few cases swine and swine products can enter the United States. Commercially canned pork is allowed if the CBP officer can determine from the label that the meat was cooked in the can after it was sealed to make it shelf-stable without refrigeration.

Why?

The regulations on importing meat and meat products change frequently because they are based on disease outbreaks in different areas of the world... All decisions about the admissibility of animal products are dependent on disease conditions in their country of origin or the country where the products were processed and/or packaged. Because disease conditions can change at a moment's notice, travelers who purchase such goods must be prepared for the fact that the goods may be confiscated during customs clearance.

If you really, really want that ham - and I completely understand -, the website gives two phone numbers to call and verify. No joke:

Parma, Iberian or Serrano hams - Call (301)734- 7633 or (301) 734-3277. Only certain plants are certified exporters, and the hams must be accompanied by certificates and seals.

On the message boards of the foodie website, Chowhound, participants have said that very few Spanish ham processors and producers follow USDA regulations. Indeed, on the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Health Inspection Service, Spain's currently got a few swine diseases on its hooves [PDF, see page A-1-27]. We wouldn't want that in the groundwater, would we? It sounds to me as if the jamón allowable into the country might be the same already available in US stores. The USDA monitors retailers for illegal hams, apparently.

2. Cheesin' is Fine if It's Solid and Contains No Meat.

On cheese, the US Custom and Border Patrol website states:

Solid cheese (hard or semi-soft, that does not contain meat); butter, butter oil, and cultured milk products such as yogurt and sour cream are not restricted. Feta cheese, Brie, Camembert, cheese in brine, Mozzarella and Buffalo Mozzarella are permissible (USDA Animal Product Manual, Table 3-14-6). Cheese in liquid (such as cottage cheese or ricotta cheese) and cheese that pours like heavy cream are not admissible from countries affected by foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Cheese containing meat is not admissible depending on the country of origin.

Also, packaging of cheese does not make a difference in whether it's allowable.

3. Which State Do you Live in? Are you of Legal Drinking Age? Wine is Usually Fine, a Liter to be Precise. Wait, How Did We Start Using the Metric System?

So if you're over the age of 21, as a "generic rule," you can bring a liter of alcohol, so says the US Customs and Border Protection. But, guess what? State governments, not the federal government, regulate the sale and production of alcoholic beverages in the US...

Most States restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be brought into that State apply only to residents of that State. Usually people transiting a state are not subject to those restrictions, but sometimes regulations change, and if this is a matter of utmost importance to you, you can check with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board where you will be arriving to find out what their policies are... A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity - although travelers are still subject to state restrictions which may allow less.

Any given state may also allow its residents over 21 years of age to return home with MORE THAN a gallon of alcohol for personal consumption, as I found out today in my own fair state of Illinois. Illinois allows its residents of-age to return with one gallon (3.78 liters)! Yay Land of Lincoln! If you like wine, it might be worth an email or phone call to your state's ABC Board. The rules are different for alcoholic spirits, whether one crosses into the US by plane, by car or by sea, as the folk on the Chowhound board discuss. Whew! Looks like more research is in my future!

As we all know at this time of year, no one gets away from the Tax Man, even in a so-called duty-free shop:

Alcoholic beverages purchased in duty-free shops are subject to duty and federal excise tax when accompanying you into the United States.

This is just a guess, but I think the rule is listed in a metric measurement because the rest of the world operates in the metric system. Therefore products made for sale outside the US would more likely be labeled in the metric system.

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