I’ve often wondered what happens to all the food that gets confiscated by customs and immigrations officials when re-entering the United States. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve had to hand over apples and other snacks that I brought with me to work, but didn’t have time to eat flying from JFK down to the Caribbean and back in a single day.

Luckily Great Big Story, a youtube channel “dedicated to the untold, overlooked and flat-out amazing,” recently made a super interesting mini-vid explaining all about it. It’s called, Where Illegal Food Goes to Die. It’s super interesting, and less than two minutes long:


I couldn’t believe that at JFK alone they process 400-600 lb. of contraband food daily! And the variety of what people try to bring into the U.S. is staggering. We probably all have our stories with the run-ins we’ve witnessed with customs and immigration officials.

I’m always reminded of one time in particular when Jim and I got stuck in a standstill line after arriving into San Diego International Airport.  We were with my entire family and it was the holidays. We had just returned from hiking all over Mexican rain forests and climbing ancient Mayan ruins reclaimed by nature.



We were exhausted and ready to be home. But between us and the sliding glass doors exiting to freedom, was another family, the customs official, and a giant hunk of meat.

It was the largest cut of (I think) beef I’d ever seen, like the kind that belongs on a taco truck’s rotisserie. It looked deliciously  seasoned, and the family was in an uproar because it was being taken away from them. There was yelling, tears, a few curses, and a huge language barrier. Before the situation resolved, another customs and immigration official came to relieve the bottleneck and redirect the rest of the traffic. I always wondered what happened to that meat. Now I know. It was pulverized in a splash of water in a humungous garbage disposal.

Not that I can blame the family for trying. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has an extensive yet sufficiently vague list of guidelines that are confusing at best.  And sometimes it seems worth it just to try. I once even brought a delicious pastry all the way from Venice, Italy to Los Angeles as a special treat for Jim when he couldn’t make it on a trip through Italy with me and his sister this summer.

— Laura Rowley


Written by Laura Rowley

I am an artist, flight attendant, and travel blogger.


  1. Interesting topic, post and video! I feel bad for so much food going to waste, I wish people would leave it at their departure points, i.e. respect the rules and not try to bring all sorts of snacks when it’s quite easy to find out what’s restricted… with internet, these things shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Thanks for this post! Have a happy weekend! 🙂

  2. Such an interesting piece! After watching that video – and all that food going to waste – I’m going to really think twice before grabbing some produce to eat on my next international flight.

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