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Christmas: Hand Luggage or Hamper?

Christmas: Hand Luggage or Hamper?
Cat Davies looks into the rules on food imports to the UK and finds plenty of scope for bringing back Christmas treats.
If you live to eat, love to travel, and do not enjoy buying souvenirs for the sake of shopping, then it’s likely that your suitcase will have contained the odd piece of cheese and a few bottles of balsamic for our friends in the north. On my last conference trip to Salamanca, I marvelled at the sympathetic design of my presentation poster-tube and a rather weighty chorizo. Mea culpa. I knew that I was on shaky ground, but have rarely given my store-cupboard imports more thought than a token naughty shrug and protestations of doing it for love. At the top of the delights of holidaying abroad are the culinary discoveries devoured whilst on the road. Travelling tales are built around the creaminess of the yogurt or the piquancy of the spice, and images of delicate sushi or steaming street food punctuate the steady stream of sunsets presented to loved ones when the travellers return. Stories and photographs engage us to a point, but who wants to indulge vicariously? If the saucisson was so divine, sister, then let me at it.
The Department for Farming and Rural Affairs recently relaunched its Don’t Bring me Back campaign, which warns British tourists of the agricultural risks and penalties involved in bringing home food products from outside the EU. The campaign has been triggered by significant hauls for the harvest table - 85 tonnes of illegal animal products were seized by customs officers last year - and general confusion over what can and can’t be brought in. Posters at the luggage carousel featuring smudgy animals masked by a Big Red X, coupled with the current suspicion inherent in using airports means that we are walking through the green aisle with the zealous stride of a crack fiend, when in many cases we’re doing nothing wrong at all.
The guidelines for most Eurojetters are simple. You can bring back personal consignments pretty much scot-free, i.e. ‘a reasonable amount of any food on sale in any EU country’, extending to some additional European territories such as Andorra, Canary Islands, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Liechtenstein, Norway, San Marino and Switzerland. So that covers your verdant Italian olive oil and mama’s meaty protein-rich food parcel to see you through the bleak Brit-winter. If those bulging cases look to contain food for commercial purposes – or surprisingly, potatoes, even for personal use - then you may be subject to checks by the health authorities at the point of import. Just as all mothers worth their salt told their daughters never to eat anything bigger than their own head, it’s probably wise not to pack anything you couldn’t comfortably consume at a raucous dinner party between friends.
So with your conscience clean and your Euros exchanged for continental treasures, can we spend on? Well yes, with a note of caution and a nod to current affairs. It is worth checking the government guidelines when planning a trip. The regular rules may fluctuate in times of high security, e.g. egg products in times of avian flu. If you have ever had your painstakingly-sourced liquid sunshine taken away, or even a decidedly solid coarse paté confiscated due to the 100ml rule you’ll know how frustrating it can be. It’s fine if it was purchased and hermetically-sealed at the airport, or secreted inside your checked-in luggage, however.
It’s only once we travel outside of the Eurozone that things start to get foggier. That ‘reasonable amount’ now precludes any food containing products of animal origin, and those pesky potatoes (including crisps) continue to be outright forbidden.
The best advice is to check Defra’s handy searchable Import Rules. Looking at this fool’s guide to food imports at, I found welcome news.
 From America, for example, we can harvest bagels and cookies, but not cheese; from Australia, Vegemite but not powdered milk. No great sacrifices there then. Regulated amounts of maple syrup and salmon are fine from Canada to the UK as long as we promise not to risk the outlawed caribou meat, and powdered spices and mangoes are all I’m interested in from India. Having suffered a burst curry lunch box last week from home to work, I’ll pass on a repeat episode with a 60 litre backpack. Manuka honey from New Zealand, olives from Turkey and salsa from Mexico all get the green flag. What delicious joy. And concerning creatures of the deep, I can only dream of being in the position of bringing more than a spoonful of caviar, but anything over 125g requires a license due to its link to protected species. Defra also spells out restrictions on large quantities of oysters and snail meat, but with all due respect, who would waste a source of fresh quivering oysters on a long and rarefied journey when they can instead be devoured overlooking their serene natural habitat, where the sun shines on the righteous.
Defra’s database not only stipulates the yeas and the nays of food imports, it also explains the reasons for the regulations and the penalties for ignoring them. So do inform yourself about the risks of cross-contamination that rural communities are so vulnerable to, and especially when visiting foreign countries such as Australia and New Zealand which successfully protect their precious biodiversity by clear laws and practices. But as long as your amuse-bouches brought back to the UK don’t reach commercial proportions, pack in that saffron and Jamaican salt-cod, safe in your socks till it’s time for fish stew. And if you fancy s’more, you can probably get hold of it in a town not far away – a pleasure and privilege of multicultural Britain.
Summary: From EU countries and certain other European territories, you can bring back to the UK most foods on sale, as long as they are for personal consumption.
From most non-EU countries back to the UK, personal imports of meat and dairy products are banned, with restrictions also applying to other food products, such as potatoes, fish, shellfish, eggs and egg products, honey and certain fruits and vegetables.
For further information, see:
4 Comments | Add a comment


Yvonne Prevett
Cambridge, England
A very informative, well written article article
Stuart McArthur
Love it! But then i,m biased. Interested to see what you pick up in Norway then.
Rob Radcliffe
Thanks for the heads-up. I'll eat the dolphin sandwiches before check-in.
kerrie brettle
United Kingdom
What an amazing review--whoever wrote this with such informative yet such beautiful, visual imagery flowing from her fingertips is truly blessed, as is her family.


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10 December 2012
By: Cat Davies
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