September 11, 2014

When I was in college my friend Joe was obsessed with Kinder Surprise eggs, small chocolate treats with a miniature toy inside. Since Kinder eggs are not available in the U.S., during a trip to Windsor, Ontario, Joe bought out a 7-Eleven’s entire stock of the candy. As she rang up dozens of individual eggs, the cashier knowingly asked, “You boys are from the States, aren’t you?”

Later I learned that Kinder eggs are actually illegal in the U.S. Our biggest problem upon crossing the Ambassador Bridge back to Detroit was that one of us only had a driver’s license and not a passport — ah, the good old days of border security. More recently, the eggs themselves have been targeted by zealous Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. In 2011 a Canadian woman was threatened with a $300 fine for posssessing a single egg. The following year, two men were held for hours and threatened with a $2,500-per-egg fine for bringing 6 eggs home from Vancouver.

The root cause of the Kinder egg ban is that foods in the U.S. cannot have a non-functional inedible component. Lollipops are fine because the stick is functional, but the toy inside a Kinder egg is forbidden. There’s a case to be made that the candy is dangerous: at least three children have died in the U.K. from choking on the small toys, leading to an unsuccessful campaign to ban Kinder eggs in Europe.

The Kinder egg ban has frustrated my friend Joe and has led to whimsical news headlines. Who would detain otherwise innocent citizens for possessing a chocolate egg? Why are CBP agents so vigilant about Kinder eggs? Can citizens really face five-figure fines for having a few chocolates in their suitcase?

I pored over the CBP website for over 10 minutes trying to find the agency’s policy on Kinder eggs. I found press releases with titles like “Cross-Border Travelers Are Reminded of Kinder Egg Ban” but without any indication of standard fines or punishments. Finally I contacted CBP on July 11 of this year, doing my best not to incriminate myself:

I have read on your web site that Kinder Surprise eggs may not be brought into the United States. If a U.S. citizen attempts to bring Kinder eggs into the U.S., what penalties would apply? Besides surrendering the Kinder eggs, would the traveler be subject to fines or imprisonment?

Two months passed, and this morning I received a reply from CBP. It reads, in part:

If the eggs were declared they would simply be seized. There would be no fine. There is the potential for a fine, at the discretion of the admitting CBP Officer if they were not declared. Typically, the fine for undeclared food items is $400.00. Beyond that, if there was smuggling or other issues evident there might be other charges.

The message includes a lot of boilerplate text and closes with a disclaimer:

This email is intended for Informational Purposes Only, final determination of admission is solely at the discretion of the CBP Officer based upon the inspection at the time of entry.

So, what have we learned?

  1. The notion of a $300 fine or a $2,500-per-egg fine has no basis in CBP policy; agents can seize eggs and only issue a single fine for failing to declare food items.
  2. When crossing the border with Kinder eggs, declare them. You may have to surrender them but you’d only forfeit the cost of the eggs.
  3. Eat your Kinder eggs while waiting in line to cross the border.