By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What’s bugging Tim Cahill

State Treasurer Tim Cahill is very upset that U.S. Customs agents harassed his family when they flew home from Italy recently because one of his daughters was found carrying peaches (Globe story here; Herald story here). “As a citizen who cares about security, I think that the time needs to be spent better and maybe on less serious issues than peaches,” Cahill is quoted as saying.

Both papers report having made unsuccessful attempts to get government officials to comment (the Globe’s Andrea Estes appears to have tried quite a bit harder than the Herald’s Dave Wedge), and then leave it at that. But about three seconds of Googling would have revealed what their intuition should have told them in the first place — that fruit can carry non-native insects and other nasties that could wreak havoc if they get loose in the United States.

Here’s part of a press release on a food-sniffing dog that works for the Houston Airport system:

During their training, these canines are taught to alert their human counterparts when they sniff five primary odors: apple, citrus, mango, pork and beef. Plants and flowers are also at the top of the dogs’ target items list.

These target items are foreign to the United States and may contain certain diseases and insects that are not currently present in the country. The function of CBP [Customs and Border Protection] is to prevent these potentially dangerous items from entering the country and, by the same token, to prevent foreign items from the U.S. entering other countries.

Meats can carry livestock diseases, such as swine fever and mad cow disease that can kill American livestock. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, can carry insects or diseases, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly or citrus canker, which can wipe out hundreds of acres of the U.S.’s agriculture.

Or maybe we could review how Dutch elm disease, spread by bark beetles, came to wipe out the graceful elm trees that used to line the streets of Boston and other American cities. According to this Wikipedia entry (corroborated by the Encyclopedia Britannica):

The disease was first reported in the United States in 1928, with the beetles believed to have arrived in a shipment of logs from the Netherlands destined for the Ohio furniture industry. The disease spread slowly from New England westward and southward, almost completely destroying the famous Elms in the “Elm City” of New Haven, reaching the Detroit area in 1950, the Chicago area by 1960, and Minneapolis by 1970.

Maybe the agents who stopped the Cahills acted unprofessionally and didn’t bother to explain themselves. Maybe they were unnecessarily rude, the default mode for too many government officials with a little bit of power. But certainly they had a legitimate reason to confiscate the peaches. Too bad the papers didn’t make more of an attempt to find out why.

Even better: Steve finds the notice at left on the Customs Web site. It begins: “We regret that it is necessary to take agricultural items from your baggage. They cannot be brought into the United States because they may carry animal and plant pests and diseases. Restricted items include meats, fruits, vegetables, plants, soil, and products made from animal or plant materials.”

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  1. BosPhotog

    Hi Dan, The dogs that sniff out this stuff are called the Beagle Brigade. Here, The Herald ran a story many years ago, pre Sept 11, ’01. Back then it was obvious that this enforcement was of the utmost importance. At JFK alone, the amount of very scary insects etc that come in from foreign lands would boggle one’s mind.

  2. Steve

    I guess 9/11 really did change everything. We’ve forgotten that the dangers that existed before 9/11 still do exist.But did these reporters do anything beyond trying to contact government officials? Like maybe going to the US Customs website and clicking on “For U.S. Citzens”? If so, they would have seen this page.And there in the middle of the page, in bold, with a little pdf icon, read the following words:”Notice to Arriving Travelers – Agricultural Products“which leads to a document with large print describing the restrictions on agricultural imports.Dan, I hope you are stressing the Mad Research Skillz it takes to be a competent journalist in the 21st century.

  3. Tim Allik

    Invasive species are a significant problem that affect our waterways, our farms and our forests. It’s shocking that Cahill was so ignorant that he didn’t take that into account in his public comments. It’s even more shocking that the reporters and editors for the local papers didn’t know enough to raise the issue in their accounts of the matter. Thanks for bringing this up, Dan.

  4. Anonymous

    This is another outrageous example of someone’s inflated sense of entitlement. Anyone who has ever traveled overseas, before or after 9/11, knows the rules governing agricultural products. They are printed clearly on customs forms and are often included in questions asked by customs agents. Cahill should get no slack on this, not because it is the most important issue, but because it underlines that we have yet another fraud in office who demands special treatment. The Globe and the Herald once again prove their lameness when it comes to certain issues. One hesitates to speculate why.

  5. Anonymous

    I just returned from the UK a couple of weeks ago and a custom agent was at the baggage claim area with her beagle making the rounds and sniffing passengers’ bags. I twice saw the beagle identify something in a bag and the agent then asked the person if they could see inside the bag. In both cases the person had fruit packed away. In one case the person was right next to me and the agent could not have been any more professional. She informed the person that they could not bring fruit into the country and told them why. She then asked if they had any more fruit and then asked to examine the bag further. That was the end of it. No detainment; no controversy.

  6. Ann

    Cahill never denied that they did the wrong thing by bringing the fruit into the country, or tried to excuse his daughter’s action. I think the real issue is that they were treated poorly by the customs agents – no one should be treated poorly when entering the US.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    He said he told the agents he was a government official but never identified himself as the treasurer.“It didn’t appear to me that they knew who I was nor cared,” he said.Bravo! I wish I could post Howie’s “Do you know who I am?” sound clip.If the fruit were forfeited promptly, as it should have been, with no explanations of Government Status, perhpas the time involved could have been significantly reduced.It is not for the Treasurer to set Customs priorties. It is for the Treasurer to say, “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Ann: To repeat, here’s what Cahill told the Globe: “As a citizen who cares about security, I think that the time needs to be spent better and maybe on less serious issues than peaches.” I don’t think that squares with your take.

  9. Anonymous

    EB3 here.I assumed the peaches were confiscated becaue they were not declared and we all know what can happen when non-native living things are brought into a new habitat. There is good reason for it.However I am sure these low paying, low intelligence, power filled dinks were being a-holes.That is the problem with airports since 9/11. Almost everyone working there are dicks. And they are acting so in the name of God and Country. And they have all these new powers where they can easily cause you problems.I would rather take my chances with the terroists then put up with the false hustle crap that goes on now.On top of that we have the biggest thieves in the world, Logan Airport baggage handlers, having access to our mandatory unlocked luggage. I’m not surprised that missing items from luggage has increased dramatically. Any person with common sense should of seen this happening.I would rather take my chances with the ghost terroists.

  10. Harry

    Dan,I also posted this morning on the same bizarre Globe story in Squaring the Boston Globe . Didn’t see the Herald story, which of course had a much different spin. Another day, another unprofessional and embarassing story in the Globe, I would say.

  11. Anonymous

    As a citizen who cares about new and unwanted bugs and plants making debuts in this country, I think that the time is well spent keeping agricultural products from coming in via passenger aircraft and less time ought to be spend on less serious issues such as the rampant paranoia over water bottles, evil-looking people, and listening in on private conversations.

  12. Jerry

    This anti-pest rule has been in place a long time, for the good reasons you and others point out. I kept looking for this information in Andrea Estes’s story but to no avail. My wife and I were barred in 1999 from bringing a Granny Smith apple into the United States when we arrived at Bar Harbor on the “Cat” ferry from Nova Scotia. The INS agent politely offered us options, though: “You can eat it now, or give it to me to get rid of.” Seemed reasonable. Not wanting to hold up the line of waiting cars, we gave it to her. Arizona and California used to have rules like this too (and maybe still do), enacted to protect the fruit/vegetable industries so important to those states. Years ago we had to surrender two or three oranges of unknown origin as we drove into Arizona from Texas.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    BTW – Dan – what LESS SERIOUS issues SHOULD the customs service be concentrating on (we will assume that the MORE important issues are being dealt with, as is proper).Smuggled balsa cribbage boards concealing Wampanoag roulette wheels?Embargoed ‘Cahill for Senate’ bumper stickers?Why is the Treasurer insisting that the Customs Serice deal with LESS serious issues than peaches?

  14. Neil

    We should be stopping the peaches over there, so that we don’t have to stop them here.

  15. Anonymous

    I don’t know how old the child was. Did she pack her own suitcase, & was it, or should it have been checked by her parents prior to departure? IIRC there’s a customs declaration form to be filled out prior to deplaning in the US. What are the details of that? My tendency is to believe that the customs inspectors did act in an abrasive, thuggish manner, and this set off the Treasurer. Yes, of course, there are food products that are not allowed to be brought in by travelers. I assume that the peaches are one of them. It’s not the Treasurer’s job, or anyone else’s, for that matter, to be subservient to the security. However, a little manners and consideration, on both parts would go a long way.

  16. Anonymous

    two separate issues are being confounded:– anybody stupid enough to carry agric products on an int’nat plane merits a good reaming at customs.– customs needs to measure its understandable zero-tolerance policy with a humane approach. what lesson are kids being taught when government officials are being rude to them and their parents?

  17. Outraged Liberal

    We had an identical experience to anon 11:22 coming back from the UK last month — right down to the fruit-sniffing beagle who smelled the memory of a long-eaten banana in my wife’s bag. He also discovered a cake and something else non-threatening on his rounds of the baggage carousel.Our experience with the dog handler was perfectly fine though the sullenness of other customs folks was notable.I have to compare to the other end, where long lines in the entry hall (30 minutes or so) didn’t prevent pleasantness.Then there is the screening process (a whole different subject) and the fact we could learn a lot for efficiency and courtesy from the airport that invented the 3-ounce bottle.Cahill should have known the rules — unless he was in the habit of signing documents without reading. But what’s the old line — a little courtesy won’t kill you?

  18. Anonymous

    Hey, if there’s going to be arrogance by public employees, it should be BY Mass. politicians, not TO them, dammit! We’re better at it!

  19. Ron Newman

    Many years ago, I had to surrender two or three Jaffa oranges after a flight from Israel to the US. But there was no big fuss, no harassment, and no fine — they just said I had to give them up, and I did.

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