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Flying home from abroad? Leave the veggies, palm hats behind

As BWI continues to increase its international traffic, Rosoff and her fellow agricultural specialists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection are seizing more banned items to prevent invasive species, disease-carrying foods and anything else that could potentially devastate American agriculture from slipping through the airport into the U.S.

By the time international travelers arriving at BWI-Marshall Airport meet Sue Rosoff, they've already answered her questions three times. But, one by one, she asks them again.

Did you bring any fruit or vegetables with you — apples or oranges? Any meats — beef, pork? Seeds? What about Mamajuana, the woodchip drink? Any food at all? Any palm hats or baskets?

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As the number of international flights at BWI has risen sharply, Rosoff and her fellow agriculture specialists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been seizing more banned items to prevent invasive species, disease-carrying foods and anything else that could potentially harm American agriculture from slipping into the country.

Customs does not release the exact number of agriculture-related seizures by airport, but the general increase reported at BWI follows an upward trend nationwide. In the 2015 fiscal year, customs agents reported seizing an average of 470 invasive insect pests and weed seeds and 4,548 inadmissible pieces of food every day at 328 points of entry. That's up from 425 and 4,447 per day the previous fiscal year.

Officials haven't attributed the rise to any one cause, but they point to several factors such as increased international travel, better searches using canine teams and other methods, and "improved risk-based assessments" of the routes and countries that are often the sources of pests and prohibited items.

At BWI, "it's mostly a lot of tourists, so we don't get a lot of the weird stuff other places get," said Rosoff, a Randallstown native. "But it doesn't mean we're not on our toes."

Most travelers answer her inquiries with a series of "no's" and move on. Only about 5 percent to 10 percent have items on the list and declare them, she said.

"It's the other 1 to 5 percent who might not be so honest," Rosoff said. "That's who we're looking for."

If arriving passengers have declared food or other agricultural items — or if X-ray scans of their luggage have given them away — Rosoff directs them to a corner of the customs area on the bottom floor of the E Terminal, where their bags again are scanned and searched.

By this point, they've filled out a small blue customs declaration form, and answered the questions again on a touch-screen monitor and to the customs officer stamping their passports.

"We give them quite a few opportunities to tell us," Rosoff said.

The fine for deliberately trying to sneak prohibited agricultural items into the U.S. is $300, which must be paid immediately at the airport. Travelers may take their cases to court, although that means the potential fines then can be raised to $1,100 or more.

The levy of fines is discretionary, Rosoff said, and most of the time she confiscates the items without writing a ticket.

BWI's international traffic increased by nearly a third last year to 1.1 million passengers, thanks to new international airlines and global routes. It was the airport's first year boasting more than 1 million international passengers.

The airport debuted international passenger service with twice-weekly flights to Paris in 1960, when it was still known as Friendship Airport. Airlines now offer nonstop flights from BWI to 10 international destinations: Aruba, Mexico, Costa Rica, England, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Iceland, Canada and two airports in the Bahamas.

A $105 million reconstruction of the D and E concourses with a new security checkpoint is expected to further increase international travel.

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Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture govern what's banned and what isn't. The list is updated regularly, sometimes more than once a month. The inspectors — who are required to have degrees in the biological sciences and undergo months of training — keep binders with the most updated lists for reference.

The questions they ask passengers change slightly for each flight, depending on the country of origin.

The most commonly confiscated items tend to be forgotten apples or oranges, Rosoff said. They aren't allowed because they could carry unseen pests, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly, which caused more than $100 million in damage to California's crops in the 1980s.

Tourists will sometimes return from the Caribbean with hats or baskets woven from palm leaves, another no-no because of the red palm mites that have spread like wildfire across the islands, blowing in the wind and devouring the trees' leaves. The agriculture department has dubbed them "the biggest mite explosion ever observed in the Americas."

Rice from the Middle East also gets flagged because of concerns about the Khapra beetle, one of the world's most destructive pests of grain products and seeds. The beetle has infiltrated the U.S. a number of times, including once in Owings Mills in 1997, and has been eradicated each time. It's considered a "dirty feeder because it damages more grain kernels than it consumes," the Department of Agriculture says.

Passengers who've been horseback riding while abroad are required to have their shoes disinfected, as footwear can carry animal diseases and insects from stables.

Much of the inspection is done visually, but the agriculture specialists have a lab just a hallway away where the confiscated materials are inspected with a microscope and other instruments.

Their findings are documented and reported — depending on what is found — to a variety of agencies, including the agriculture department, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and state agriculture officials.

The customs inspectors, who are also stationed around the port of Baltimore, "play a major role in safeguarding Maryland's agriculture industry," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said. "Their work prevents invasive species from infiltrating and damaging our local nurseries and ecosystems."

One evening this week, Rosoff opened a passenger's luggage, releasing a strong seafood aroma as she pulled out bags of cooked snails, dried crayfish, shrimp, beef soup seasonings and ground melon seed. All were allowed.

Roasted peanuts and spices in another bag passed the test, too. With a latex-gloved hand, Rosoff felt down into the bottoms of a pair of black boots in the bag. "Occasionally, we'll get some mangoes in shoes," she said.

A bag of dried beans from Kenya almost was confiscated because of a couple of stray rice kernels, but upon inspection the package was deemed OK and Rosoff returned the food to its owner.

The same passenger wasn't so lucky with several pieces of aluminum foil-wrapped beef, which got tossed into a trash bag.

The banned items — and all in-flight trash such as newspapers, napkins and food trays that come off international planes — are specially bagged and put into an industrial dumpster marked "INTERNATIONAL TRASH, INCINERATE ONLY."

While not to the extent of bigger international hubs in New York and Washington, the inspectors at BWI seize their share of "bush meat" — anything from monkeys to rodents hunted in the wild — and they've confiscated animal parts from a few Voodoo practitioners over the years.

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The job, by nature, comes with a degree of confrontation. Rosoff and other inspectors catch flak from people when they confiscate their food. Irked passengers sometimes shoot them a nasty look and tell them to "enjoy it."

"Contrary to popular belief, we do not eat any of the items we seize," Rosoff said with a laugh. "They think either we're going to consume it or sell it. Far from the truth."

Inspectors seized the jerk pork that Dennis Reid of Laurel brought back from his annual trip to visit family in Jamaica. Reid, 45, said he'd never had pork confiscated by customs before, but was told it was currently banned due to heightened swine flu concerns.

Losing the meat was unfortunate, he said, but the inspectors were careful in handling his possessions during the search.

"They're pretty respectful when they're going through your stuff," Reid said.

The workers are mindful that passengers have just gotten off an hours-long flight. In cases when people are most upset, officials say, it's usually because the confiscated items have a high monetary or sentimental value — such as dirt from a family member's foreign grave.

But most of what's taken is food, which can be nearly as sensitive.

"The agriculture folks try to be respectful, because we know food is intimate," said Andrea Sinclair, customs agriculture supervisor at BWI. "But we have to balance that with our mission, which is to protect American agriculture from foreign pests and foreign diseases."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and photographer Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.

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