Zirpoli: Beware of the United turkey sandwich

During our return from Italy to the United States, after a connecting flight in Germany, all 260 passengers of our United Airlines flight were given a turkey and cheese sandwich sealed in an airtight wrapper. Not very hungry, my wife and I ate one sandwich and put the other one in our backpack to eat later.

As we encountered U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C., I was asked if our sandwich contained meat. “It is a turkey and cheese sandwich from United Airlines,” I said. No big deal, right? After all, if there were any danger in that sandwich, it had already contaminated most of the 260 people who ate their sandwich and who were now getting off the United flight and infecting our nation’s capital. In fact, unlike the others, my sandwich was still safely sealed, with its perceived dangers secured.


Nevertheless, the CBP official took our passports and told us to “follow the red line” as he pointed to the ground. I looked at the red line and saw that it would take us down a long hallway, away from our adult children who, ahead of us and now entering the luggage area, were unaware that their parents would not be joining them.

We walked down the red line of doom and ended up in a room with men and women dressed from head to toe in black and heavily armed. The man at the desk told us to “take a seat with the others.” I asked if we could tell our children that we were being detained as I imagined they were wondering where we were. He allowed us to call them and I explained our bewildering situation.

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After sitting for a while, I asked the official at the desk if he had any idea how long we would be held so that we could inform our children. He said that he did not know. About 10 minutes later I approached him a second time and stated that I needed to give our kids some direction about how to proceed; they were still waiting in the luggage department.

At that point the agent, who did not seem to know much, told us that his fellow CBP officials were “probably” waiting for United to deliver our luggage for inspection. This information would have been helpful earlier as, I explained, “Our kids have our luggage.” Indeed, our well-trained children secured our luggage, as well as theirs. “Call them and tell them to place your luggage back on the carousel so United can find them” the official demanded. I did as I was told. Our children, however, took this directive one step further and found a United agent willing to deliver our luggage to the CBP office before they were asked to leave. When our luggage was finally delivered and found to be free of additional turkey sandwiches, or whatever it was they were looking for, we were told to leave.

Interestingly, the CBP officials lost interest in our sandwich. At no time did anyone ask to look at the turkey sandwich still in our possession. As the CBP officials searched our luggage, I asked them if they wanted the sandwich. “No,” one responded, with a friendly smile, “You can keep it.”

I know that there are regulations prohibiting the import of “poultry” and “meats” into the United States. I also recalled the recent case where a women went through a similar experience after holding on to an apple given to her on a United flight. “Vegetation” is also prohibited. Of course, thousands of flights bring all of these airline foods into the United States every day.

A more intelligent reading of these regulations would inform CBP agents that these apples and turkey sandwiches, cleared and approved by an American airline company, do not constitute a contamination or security threat. Nor are these items what officials had in mind when prohibiting the smuggling of “vegetation” and “meats” into the U.S. which might contaminate local stocks. The CBP’s disinterest in my even looking at our sandwich is further evidence of this.

American tourism is a $1.54 trillion per year industry. Travel and Leisure reports that while tourism around the world was up 7 percent in 2017, it was down nearly 4 percent in the United States. This decline has grown in 2018. For example, Reuters reports that “bookings from Germany to the United States are down 20 percent for the 2018 summer season.” In Canada, the Toronto District School Board has suspended all student field trips to the U.S. (250,000 students) citing concerns about how some children are being treated at the U.S. border.

Are we “great,” yet?