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TSA settles the score: Peanut butter is a liquid

A traveler’s viral tweet revives the debate over TSA’s controversial ruling

(Illustration by Kat Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
4 min

It’s the Transportation Security Administration’s job to stop dangerous items from getting on planes. On any given day, workers are finding guns in raw chickens or swords hidden in canes. The traveling public can get behind TSA’s decision to pull weapons from carry-on bags, but when it comes for items that don’t seem as dangerous, we’re floored.

Patrick Neve took to Twitter this week after TSA confiscated his Jif natural creamy peanut butter.

Neve was rushing through his home airport in Pittsburgh for a quick turnaround trip to Tulsa for a speaking engagement. It’s a routine he’s used to as a professional speaker and podcaster, so he knew he’d be pressed for time to eat and packed food for the road: instant rice, chicken, an oatmeal bar he’d baked for the occasion and peanut butter he bought that morning.

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“I’m a simple man. I eat peanut butter and oatmeal every day,” Neve, 25, told The Washington Post.

When his bag was pulled for additional screening by a TSA officer, Neve figured his podcast equipment or laptop was to blame, even though he has TSA PreCheck.

But his no-stir peanut butter was the culprit.

In the eyes of TSA, peanut butter — even the crunchy kind — falls under its liquids rule and is allowed in carry-on bags only in amounts 3.4 ounces or less; anything more can go in checked bags. The officer explained the rule; Neve disagreed.

“TSA: Sorry, no liquids, gels, or aerosols. Me: I want you to tell me which of those things you think peanut butter is,” he wrote in a tweet that now has more than 130,000 likes.

People chimed in online with similar qualms with TSA’s liquids rule. Hearts had been broken over wasted Dijon mustard in Paris and frozen queso that thawed too early. There was confusion about chunky salsa and pasta sauce, while hummus is tossed only sometimes.

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“I would definitely call it a solid,” Neve said of his discarded peanut butter. “Some people [on Twitter] were saying, ‘Oh, it’s a non-Newtonian fluid,’ and I’m like, ‘Stop making up words.’”

In an Instagram post reacting to Neve’s tweet, TSA stood behind defining peanut butter as a liquid, defaulting to the chemistry textbook definition that “a liquid has no definite shape and takes a shape dictated by its container.”

TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston told The Post that it can also be called a gel and said that the issue may be semantic. We think about the liquids rule by its name, often forgetting that it also applies to aerosols, gels, creams and pastes. We might think of liquid as a bottle of water or a container of shampoo, and gels as toothpaste or LA Looks, but TSA takes every item on its conveyor belt literally.

The agency has a quip its employees repeat often to help travelers remember: “If you can spill it, spray it, spread it, pump it or pour it,” it’s subject to the liquids rule. You can do a few of those to peanut butter.

Another issue could be the inconsistent enforcement of rules. According to TSA policy, officers “have the discretion to prohibit an item if they feel it may pose a security threat” or to let something slide, such as when Chrissy Teigen got her gravy through security by adding it to mashed potatoes. But TSA says mashed potatoes aren’t allowed in carry-on bags in the first place.

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“I understand the discretion thing, but TSA rules feel so strange,” Neve said. “If this security measure is so necessary, then why are we dispensing with it?”

Does it really matter what states of matter are in our carry-ons? TSA says yes, that liquid explosives still pose a threat to travelers, and that if we limit the amount of liquids (and gels and creams and aerosols) we bring onboard, we reduce those security risks.

While U.K. airports plan to phase out their liquid restrictions by 2024 as they install higher-tech screening machines, we’re not there yet. TSA has said the technology available is not advanced enough to quickly check liquids for safety risks. No one wants longer lines at security.

So for now, creamy or crunchy, better pack it in your checked bag, or carry on smaller amounts, as Neve plans to do in the future.

“I hate checking bags,” he said.