What Happens to Food Seized at the Airport?


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A Transportation Security Administration officer checking a baby bottle at Kennedy International Airport in 2014. The item was given back to the passengers.

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Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Q. I’m a frequent traveler, and I’ve noticed that airport security agents seem to confiscate a lot of food, liquor and other items at checkpoints. What do the airports do with these items?

A. That depends. If you are flying domestic, there is one set of rules, and another set if you are going through customs after an international flight.

If you’re arriving at Kennedy International Airport or Newark Liberty International with a handful of authentic Greek chestnuts, for example, they will be roasted over an open fire — and ultimately incinerated. That is according to Anthony L. Bucci, a public affairs specialist at United States Customs and Border Protection. (La Guardia Airport’s arrivals are not international.)

“Once we seize a food product, it’s destroyed, either through a grinding room we have in the terminal or, if it’s something very fibrous that can’t be ground, we’ll make an incinerator run,” Mr. Bucci said.

He suggested that passengers check the Customs and Border Protection website before tucking foreign delicacies into their suitcases. “The reasoning behind that is there could be insects or viruses or diseases associated with those products,” he said.

In addition to fibrous foods, confiscated narcotics and “anything counterfeit” — like fake Viagra, he said — is incinerated.

What goes into the grinders? “That’s mostly fruits and vegetables,” he said. And it isn’t necessarily the fault of Customs if your snack is destroyed: “We’re following 400 different laws on behalf of 40 other agencies,” including the Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you are forcibly parted with something on the way into a domestic flight, said Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration in Arlington, Va., it goes in the trash. Ms. Farbstein said officials had worked to reduce the quantity of items seized.

“Let’s say it’s a bottle of water or soda that doesn’t pass security standards — instead of taking it, we encourage you to go back to the public side and finish your beverage or toss it out,” she said. Or “we’ll tell you to empty out your water bottle, and then you can refill it at a water fountain once you’re on the secure side. That’ll save you a few dollars.”

To make flying less of a guessing game, she suggests travelers visit the T.S.A.’s website.

Ms. Farbstein said liquids exceeding 3.4 ounces normally couldn’t be carried onto flights.

“Intelligence tells us that if somebody is carrying liquid explosives greater than 3.4 ounces, that amount can cause catastrophic incidents,” she said. “The likelihood of catastrophic incidents resulting from liquid explosives 3.4 ounces or smaller is much less.”

Wine can be an exception to the 3.4-ounce rule, but you have to buy it at the duty-free shop.

Ms. Farbstein added that the Federal Aviation Administration “limits the quantities of alcohol you can bring on a plane based on alcohol content; if what you’re bringing has more than 70 percent alcohol content, it’s not permitted.”

The T.S.A. knows what holiday revelers probably should: “Anything over 70 percent,” Ms. Farbstein said, “is considered a hazardous material.”

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