Bringing food items on flights can raise eyebrows at security

(Bob Staake For The Washington Post)
By Anna Louie Sussman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Dec. 11, two weeks before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slipped onto a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight wearing explosive-lined skivvies, I engineered my own massive security breach at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, boarding a New York-bound Air France flight with six jars (nearly eight pounds) of homemade fig jam for friends and relatives in my carry-on suitcase.

The security staffers' stern initial refusal to allow the stuff on board (all jam is "strictement interdite," I was told repeatedly) melted in the face of my shameless and abject weeping. After carrying on for several minutes, I was shooed onto the plane with a conspiratorial wink and a smile, laden with my contraband gifts.

In the security line at the West Palm Beach airport one week later, however, I was swiftly relieved of eight one-pound bars of guava paste I'd picked up on a trip to Puerto Rico.

"It has the same consistency as Semtex," a plastic explosive, the screener explained.

That line of reasoning appeared to be sob-proof. I watched her toss the still-wrapped slabs into a blue plastic bin.

With one of my favorite condiments labeled lethal, I decided to investigate what other weaponry lurks in the pantries of frequent travelers. As any airborne foodie knows, many edible substances are banned from carry-on luggage. Exotic honeys, homemade chutneys and just about any French cheese you can spread on a baguette have to be checked through, where they risk spilling all over one's clothes, stinking everything up or getting lost.

Sarah Horowitz, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, described the agency's policy on food and beverages as "based on extensive research." It evolved from the worldwide ban on carry-on liquids that followed an August 2006 incident in which eight men in the United Kingdom were charged with planning to commit mass murder by blowing up transatlantic flights using liquid explosives, including hydrogen peroxide catalyzed by the citrus-flavored drink mix Tang. (Three of the men were convicted in London last September.)

"The Transportation Security Administration determines what passengers can safely carry through security checkpoints using a threat-based approach and using the latest intelligence," Horowitz said. "In addition, TSA regulates all air carriers that fly to the U.S., who must meet TSA's security standards."

But enforcement is far from consistent. Verboten items often can be sneaked through, while seemingly nonthreatening foodstuffs can be confiscated at the whim of a screener. A man carrying five bottles of honey caused the closing of the Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield, Calif., this month, but he was released without charges when the substance was found to be, well, just honey. "There's no silver bullet to this," conceded Horowitz.

In a post-August 2006 world, bringing home that jar of jam from Grandma has become a game of Russian roulette.

According to the TSA's Web site, these foods are classified as potential threats: cranberry sauce, creamy dips and spreads, gravies, jams, jellies, maple syrup, oils, vinegars, salad dressing, salsa, sauces and soups.

"If you can pour it, pump it, squeeze it, spread it, smear it, spray it or spill it, then it is a liquid, gel or aerosol," Horowitz said, citing a rule developed by the TSA. But savor it?

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