- At New York City’s John F. Kennedy airport, Customs and Border Patrol officials check 1,000 bags an hour for illegal goods.
- Officers and specialists stop narcotics from entering the United States, as well as illicit food that could spread foreign pests or diseases.
- Once confiscated, illegal items are incinerated or destroyed.
- Officers get some help from the Beagle Brigade – dogs trained in “passive response” to sniff out drugs and dangerous items.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: About 43,000 international travelers fly in to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport every day. By passenger volume, it’s the US’s largest international airport of entry. And in just Terminal 4 alone, that equates to almost 1,000 bags an hour. And in those suitcases, there’s a lot of stuff, some of which isn’t allowed into the country, including 120 pounds of food per day. So what happens to all those confiscated items anyway?
If you flew in to JFK in the ’90s, getting something into the US was a lot easier. But after 9/11, a conversation started about how to protect the country from dangerous foods, drugs, and people. And US Customs and Border Protection, as it’s known today, was formed.
You’ll generally see two kinds of CBP officials at airports: officers, like Steve, and agriculture specialists, like Ginger. Their job is to find, seize, and destroy millions of items each year that don’t belong in the United States. It’s a big job, and sometimes it requires a sidekick, a sidekick on four legs.
Steve Robinson: This is Canine Spike. Look, Spike. He is an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois. I’ve been his only handler from day one. He’s trained in narcotics. During the duration of our career, probably seized over 400 different seizures.
Narrator: CBP officials like Steve identify high-risk individuals trying to enter into the US, as well as drugs and firearms. And because these are such high stakes, dogs like Spike are trained in a special way, in what’s called “passive response,” meaning if they sniff out drugs, they don’t scratch, they don’t bark, and they don’t make a scene. They sit. And if they’re right, the dog gets rewarded.
Robinson: His reward is actually this toy right here. So he likes to play, so. Ain’t that right? You like to play! You like to play! Yes you do! Yes you do! Let me see it! Let me see it! Here at the port, we’ve caught up to 16 keys of ecstasy recently.
Narrator: Narcotics are then seized and sent to be incinerated. The incinerator’s location is kept a secret, as a matter of national security. Now, pretty much everyone knows that narcotics aren’t allowed through US borders, but actually, drugs aren’t the most commonly seized item at JFK. Food is.
When a regular traveler arrives in the US, they’re required to declare any food items they’re bringing in, or face up to a $1,000 fine for the first offense. These items aren’t taken because agents want to eat your yummy Spanish ham or Caribbean mangos. It’s because agents are responsible for protecting American agriculture from any foreign pests or diseases that could affect our livestock or crops. And that’s where agricultural specialists like Ginger come in.
Ginger Perrone: Everything gets destroyed to protect against that pest risk. We are protecting the country’s agricultural interests. We’re protecting against bioterrorism, where someone could intentionally try to bring in items to wreak havoc in this country.
Narrator: Foreign bugs hitchhiking in luggage have wreaked havoc in the US before. Florida’s orange and grapefruit growers lost $2.9 billion from 2007 to 2014 thanks to the Asian citrus psyllid. And since being introduced into the US in the ’90s, the Asian longhorned beetle has ravaged hardwood trees. Eradication efforts between 1997 and 2010 cost more than $373 million.
James Armstrong: In our country, we go into the grocery store and the food is always there. We don’t have to look at it for holes or check if it’s got some disease on it. It always looks great, so we get kind of spoiled, and we don’t really understand the importance of protecting that.
Narrator: So it’s crucial that even a single stowaway orange is found and confiscated. But with 34 million annual international passengers to and from JFK, going through each of those bags can seem pretty impossible. For humans, that is. Luckily, they’ve got a little help from the Beagle Brigade.
This four-legged officer is Biscuit, and like Spike, Biscuit is trained in passive response. But Biscuit’s trained to sniff out food rather than drugs.
Sal DiSpigna: They actually learn. They start out with five target odors, and then over the years he’ll expand, and they retire with sometimes, like, 150 odors that they know.
Narrator: And Biscuit’s pretty good at sniffing. These beagles have an estimated 90% accuracy rate.
Armstrong: Watching your dog sit on three grapes in a Samsonite hardside suitcase is just incredible. Scientists say their nose is 1,000 times stronger than ours. And they prove it every single day.
Narrator: Once Biscuit sniffs out an item, the passenger in question and their bags go to Ginger, who will X-ray and search the luggage.
Perrone: OK, these are both your bags, correct?
Perrone: OK, did you pack everything yourselves?
Perrone: You packed your bags yourself?
Man: We packed both.
Narrator: Ginger unzips the bag and searches each one by hand. And if she finds something that’s not allowed, it’s seized and held in temporary bins.
Perrone: This is very common from that region. Once you open it all up, you have grape leaves. These are horse-meat sausages. This is another very good example of what we get very frequently, especially in the springtime: This is a plant that they’re planning on bringing here to grow. So anything for propagation has additional entry requirements. So this is two families’ worth from one flight.
Narrator: JFK disposes of the contraband food in one of two ways: the grinder, or the incinerator. Ginger will bag up the seized items and label them based on their final destination.
Perrone: So we’re gonna go walk this bin, nice and full from those two passengers, down to our contraband room.
Narrator: This is the room where illicit food meets its end.
Perrone: This is our grinding machine. This is what we’ll generally use for fruits, vegetables, that kind of commodities. It is called the “Muffin Monster.”
Narrator: But before Ginger can send a piece of fruit down the Muffin Monster, she cuts it open, squishes it, and inspects it. She’s looking for evidence of diseases, insertion points for insects, and exit points for larvae. If she finds a little bug, like this one, she neutralizes the pest risk and sends it to the US Department of Agriculture for further investigation.
Now it’s back to the Muffin Monster: 120 pounds of food are grinded up each day from arriving international passengers. Avocados, mangos, and citrus are among the most common fruits that end up in the grinder.
Perrone: We do get messy. It’s important to dispose of it properly. I love to eat, as much as everybody else. I am a big fan of food. But I know the importance of making sure that what we seized, because of established risks, is disposed of properly to prevent it from causing problems.
Narrator: So the next time you’ve got an orange tucked into your luggage, declare it, and let experts like Ginger decide if it’s admissible. And leave the serrano ham in Spain, because Biscuit will find it.