Border Crossings – Tea and Biosecurity

Like a nice cuppa tea - with organic matter?

It seemed like such a nice birthday present for Nancy: three tins of specialty teas ordered by phone from Teavana at Northpark Mall right near where she was staying to help her parents in their move out of their home.

Yes, the tea was something else to haul back to New Zealand in her bag, but she would be delighted to get them on her birthday instead of receiving just the thought of something awaiting her back there. Besides, she had just enough space in her bag, Barry figured, and plenty of latitude on bag weight, so that it wouldn’t be a problem with the airlines. Also, a quick check of customs restrictions in New Zealand suggested that a commercial product like tea should be OK to pack.

So she readily checked off the New Zealand customs form about having no items to declare, and would likely have breezed through with her bag. Fate intervened, however. Her flight from LA to Sydney was held up for three hours due to some fire alarm malfunction. So she arrived in Sydney with just 15 minutes to make her connecting flight to Wellington. With the aid of a handler that sped her and four others through the security line and up to the right gate, she made it to the plane just in time. Of course, her bag did not.

Later, after she arrived in Wellington, we logged our address with the baggage office. Though, astonishingly, the clerk already had notice of the delayed bags on her desk, it still took a half hour for her to re-type all the info into another system so the bag could be delivered. She first proposed delivery the next morning as the bag would not arrive by plane until after 11pm. She hesitated when we pleaded for delivery that evening. Apparently, many night-time couriers have found people not home or unwilling to come to the door to sign off on delivery. Eventually she agreed, subject to our affirming we would answer the courier’s prior phone call.

Friendly notice from New Zealand MAF

That call came a bit after midnight, just about an hour after the plane landed, and the courier arrived shortly thereafter. Inside the bag was plenty of evidence of a search. Someone had taped a note on a butane Bic firestarter (it’s been hard to find a good one here) warning us that this was not a good idea to transport via luggage. Baggies filled with paprika and peppercorns (very expensive here) had been resealed. A hair brush was missing (easy to replace). Added to the bag, meanwhile, was a colorful notice and a pink slip from “MAF Quarantine Service” (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) “pursuant to Sec. 26 of the Biosecurity Act 1993” alerting us that three items had been confiscated as a threat to biosecurity: two tins of tea that cost about $60 and a commercially packaged gift to us of Balinese long peppers.

In retrospect, the last one made sense: organic matter after all. But why not the paprika or peppercorns? And why was one canister of tea left in the bag? The next day, by phone, the customs people observed amicably that the tea mixtures included orange peel and dried red pepper, suspect organic matter we weren’t even aware of in the tea. The third canister had none of these. They had, however, not confiscated the hair brush; despite having strands of hair on it, we guessed it fell out during the search.

They gave us a Hobson’s choice. We could ship the tea canisters to Auckland and have them sanitized somehow up there for $60 plus shipping cost, or have them destroyed at no cost. Since mysteriously sanitized tea did not seem worth an extra $60, we opted for destruction. Besides, Barry knew we could replace them at a shop here in New Zealand.

We were actually quite lucky, for MAF is not always so pleasant. A Kiwi we met returning home from Australia absent-mindedly brought in two oranges in his backpack, and was fined $500 each for his violation.

We did quickly replace the tea at the wonderful local shop Tleaftea at about one-quarter of the U.S. price. Their source is South Africa. We found the teas, yes, full of organic matter like citrus peel. However, the clerk explained, the peel was indeed local product added to the mix.

Biosecurity these days is serious stuff, of course, as more and more people cross borders. For decades, California has monitored its highway borders with other states and patrolled its airports against the threat of pests from other countries and other states even. With a huge agricultural output, especially citrus crops, at stake, it’s no wonder. New Zealand is both an agricultural and cattle/sheep farming country so it is very concerned about the problem, plus it is very aware of how its native plants and animals have become endangered by all those flora and fauna introduced deliberately over the last century. Even in Dallas, we’ve dutifully reported our boots if they had been anywhere near farmland to avoid unwittingly hauling in evildoing bugs from beyond.

So these things we know, but otherwise we don’t usually give too much added thought to what we pack with us. We’ve had gel-like substances taken away at one security line, and a corkscrew or two that we forgot about at others, and small penknife thing once. But there were many airports in Southeast Asia where you were barely checked, including one local airport where the TSA-equivalents passed your backpack around the metal screener, not through it.

Nonetheless, you can never be sure when you’ll be in violation of some security or biosecurity rule. Friends of ours purchased a couple of very, very expensive bottles of wine in Australia and carried them about in their packs instead of in their luggage, for they feared ending up with clothing soaked in costly wine. They passed through a number of airports without incident until one security official confiscated them as a threat. Perhaps the official worried about the screw-top seal common in wines down here, or perhaps the security force needed a few more bottles for the office party they were planning. In any case, the wines were gone.

Even if that stuff seems silly at times, we’re supporters of biosecurity – even for all the tea in, well, Dallas.

(And for more pictures from New Zealand, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the New Zealand itinerary page.)

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