The passenger from Vietnam didn’t speak English. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles International Airport say they could not immediately find a translator. So they let the contents of the traveler’s luggage speak for itself and ran it through an X-ray machine.
That’s when they spotted the chickens, 20 of them, packed in Ziploc bags and tucked inside a cooler.
A few drumsticks tucked inside a carry-on is nothing new to customs agents, who have found live chameleons and bongs disguised as Christmas ornaments. The surprise came when they opened the cooler and were confronted with poultry unlike anything this side of Frank Perdue.
The meat was the color of a bruise, a dark, blueish-gray. The very sight of it had some people reflexively clutching their abdomens. That combined with its provenance also raised fears of avian flu, which has recently sickened people in China, and claimed the lives of more than 20.
There is no need to panic, however. It turned out the chickens were merely defeathered Chinese Silkies, a white fluffy variety of chicken known for being both great pets and great eating. They are imported legally and sold in Asian markets, said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Steve Sapp. And average folks can bring them into the U.S., but only with a permit from the USDA. However, given the avian flu outbreak in Asia, customs officials are especially vigilant about poultry coming from that region.
In the end, the April 22 incident was a case of no harm, no foul. Customs said the passenger who was stopped may have made an honest mistake and was not deliberately flouting the rules. Customs officials couldn’t make a determination because of the language barrier. So they let him go without having to pay a fine. Usually, anyone they catch trying to sneak in unpasteurized French cheese or are being “less than truthful,” Sapp said, may have to fork over as much as $300. Airline employees have to pay more.
The image of the dark meat, however, got people’s attention. Sapp saw an opportunity to “give travelers an education” about bringing meat in their carry-on, and released the photo Wednesday. It went viral.
Sapp got an education of his own about Silkies. He learned they are rich in antioxidants. He didn’t get a chance to taste them, though. After they were seized, the chickens were incinerated.