My airport experience
Hi, I'm longan fruit. I almost made it into the U.S. from Vietnam. Luckily the person that was carrying it knew that she couldn't carry fresh fruit from Vietnam into the U.S. Here's my story.
I was put into a carry-on bag before I left Vietnam. While my traveler tried to eat as much as she could before getting to LAX there was still some left by the time she arrived. She also had some dried fruits in her bag. She knew that she couldn't take the fresh fruit in but she was not sure about the dried fruits in so she wanted to ask Customs about that. My traveler dutifully marked the boxes on the paper customs form before she left the plane.
When she got off the plane she looked around to see if there was a security box that's often found in airports for travelers to throw out fresh fruits and vegetables that are not allowed in the U.S. However not seeing one, she continued on through the customs process. LAX also has an electronic kiosk a traveler can use to declare if there are any fruits or vegetables that the traveler is bringing in. My traveler again marked that she had some fruits. It would have been very easy for the kiosk to be programmed to provide additional instruction telling travelers that they should go to a secondary inspection line but there was nothing.
My traveler then continued through the lines, picked up her checked baggage (which did not have any plant material) and then followed the others to leave the airport. At the final check she asked the officer what she should do with the fresh fruit since she expected at some point there would be an opportunity to get rid of it and this seemed like the last chance. The officer said she needed to go to another inspection area. Which she did and gave me to the USDA officer. The officers there also x-rayed the rest of her baggage just to be sure that there was nothing else in her luggage. What shocked my traveler was that if she had not asked about the fruit, she could have just walked out of the airport possibly carrying an exotic pest.
In this case, I did not make it out of the airport. However what would happen if there is a traveler that is carrying fruit or other live plant material that is unaware that these may carry pests that could impact California's agriculture? Some backyard citrus trees were likely infected with HLB (the bacteria that causes citrus greening) through infected stems used for grafting that were probably carried from overseas travelers. If these travelers were not aware that they could not bring them in, it's likely that they too just walked out of the airport. I would say it's not their fault - it's just that there is a missing step.
It's hard to stop someone who is intentionally trying to bring small amounts of plant material into the U.S. in their carry-on bags. However, for the rest of the out of country travelers, there are a number of actions that could be implemented. Some suggestions are
1. Modify a paper declaration form to alert travelers that they need to go through the USDA inspection line once they arrive.
2. Provide a box that is sealed so that pests cannot escape letting travelers anonymously throw out plant material that they are carrying.
3. When using the electronic customs kiosk, there should be an alert telling the traveler that they need to go through USDA inspection if the traveler checks the box in the affirmative when asked about plant material.
I didn't make it but other fruits, vegetables, and plant material probably get through every day. While the suggestions listed above will not catch everything, at least we can reduce some of it.