Chile safeguards its food export success

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.

“We don’t confiscate, we intercept,” explained Gonzalez. The distinction is lost on the 30 passengers, on average, who get slapped with fines averaging some $200 every day.

“People get really upset,” said SAG inspector Andres Benavente, recounting threats of blows over an apple from an irate Argentine and the tears of a Peruvian matron whose picnic basket full of roast guinea pig was seized.

Most of the booty is incinerated. Andean folk guitars (charangos) made from armadillo hides, a popular souvenir, are deposited in the Natural History Museum. Endangered wildlife, like the toucans discovered under a bus by SAG’s canines, is returned to its country of origin.

Many travelers have a SAG saga to tell. Like the $700 fine exacted from an elderly Ukrainian couple who neglected to declare the orange peels they had wrapped in plastic and intended to throw away.

Or the Venezuelan folk troupe whose concert was almost delayed when SAG inspectors “intercepted” their seed-filled maracas.

Or the Santiago resident who refused to foot the bill for SAG to fumigate the longhorn steer trophy he was bringing home, and now has a shorn and hornless cow head mounted on his wall.

Other travelers complain that SAG can be heavy-handed.

“My mom, who speaks no Spanish, was pulled aside, separated from her traveling companion and subjected to two hours of ‘being shamed’ by a ‘translator’ who barely spoke English,” recounted Shana Harrison. “After much negative headshaking and inability to communicate, SAG confiscated a bag of trail mix, presented her with a document in Spanish to sign, and made her pay an $80 fine.”

SAG’s attempts to communicate in English can also lead to confusion, as in its “Clues for the Good Traveler” tips posted on the Santiago airport website, which admonish tourists to “remember not to bring organic food into the country.”

One woman whose embassy job meant she spent lots of time at the airport waiting for foreign visitors to clear customs suggests: “Big panels with big bins before getting to customs, leaflets in English and drawing before boarding the flight to Chile. And not just the apple, but the wooden drumsticks, those straw sandals and hat. All of it. So many things we can't even imagine are made from plants.”

Knowing the rules certainly helps, as Annalisa discovered. "I'm Italian and Parmesan cheese is important to me. You’re allowed to bring in Parmesan cheese if it's labeled, but I didn't know that. So on my first trip, they confiscated a big piece of cheese. I would have eaten it on the spot rather than give it up, but fortunately, I had another five pieces hidden in my luggage.”