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Chile safeguards its food export success

Traveling to Chile? Don't even think about sneaking in an apple and cheese.

A brochure depicts handcuffed tourists bearing apples and cheese as part of a campaign to protect Chilean produce from the pests and plagues that would jeopardize plant and animal exports. (Courtesy Agriculture and Livestock Service; Sean Yong/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Beware crossing Chile's borders in possession of forbidden fruit.

As passengers flying into the Santiago airport cannot fail to notice, the government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to tell travelers that it means business when it comes to protecting Chilean food exports.

Stark warnings, zealous inspections, pitiless confiscations and Draconian fines safeguard Chilean produce from the pests and plagues that would jeopardize its plant and animal exports.

Brochures depict handcuffed tourists bearing apples and cheese, a suitcase with a scorpion’s sting (“You can't imagine how dangerous your luggage might be”) and an apple in a surgical mask (“Don’t infect our agriculture.”)

Failure to declare could “damage national production, instigate the need for eradication and controls, and result in major economic losses aggravated by diminished confidence in the markets for Chilean exports,” warns the Agriculture and Livestock Service, known by its Spanish-language acronym SAG.

For travelers, getting nabbed brings fines running between $170 and $18,000.

Chile’s fertile central valleys put quality wine and winter fruits on U.S. tables, bring honey and asparagus to Europe and provision Asia with pork and poultry. Salmon farms have transformed the landscape of its southern fjords; pulp and timber from its forests are shipped around the globe.

Agriculture exports are second only to mining as Chile’s top foreign exchange earner. The country’s export-oriented economy is built upon scores of free trade agreements that open access to foreign markets with demanding import standards.

Chile is separated from the rest of South America by the Andes Mountains along its eastern flank, its Pacific Ocean coastline, the Atacama Desert in the north and Patagonian glaciers to the south. This isolation has kept it free of the diseases that could devastate its agriculture. It’s SAG’s job to keep it that way.

“Chile doesn’t seal itself off from international trade; it protects itself,” said Ximena Gonzalez, head of the SAG Passenger Control unit at the Santiago airport. The defensive stance has kept Chile free of plagues of fruit flies, vineyard moths, hoof-and-mouth, mad cow, bird flue, swine flu and a host of bacterial and fungus invaders.

Santiago’s airport is the entry point for some 8,000 passengers a day, mostly Chileans returning from abroad and visitors from neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Dogs nose the luggage carousels as inspectors warn travelers to use the apple-shaped garbage bins to dispose of food morsels, plant cuttings or rustic handicrafts. Some 60 agents at eight X-ray machines conduct bag-by-bag inspections, nabbing between 175 to 220 pounds of items every day.