Not all souvenirs are created equal. Check your bag for these common items: they aren't allowed to enter the United States!
Although you may be excited to bring back some delicious beef jerky or other flavorful fares for the entire family to enjoy, proceed with caution. Most meat is pretty much out of the question, including canned meats, dried meats, and meat-based products. U.S. customs has an extremely valid reason for this, since tainted meat from wildlife -- especially in Africa -- can spread infectious disease such as foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, and mad cow disease. Better safe than sorry when dealing with food that can make hundreds of people sick, even if the odds are low.
Bringing back some sweets for the grandkids from your trip north of the border? A popular Canadian candy is the Kinder Surprise Egg, which has gained rapid popularity with American children who can get their hands on them. This chocolate-shaped egg contains a surprise toy under its delicious shell, but this innocent confection may not fly when it comes to catching your plane. The small toy hidden inside the candy egg does not meet FDA safety regulations -- so you may want to leave these sweet treats behind while preparing for your flight home.
The majority of fruits and vegetables -- especially more exotic varieties like pomegranates and pineapples -- are not allowed. Something as simple as an apple you bought from a local merchant can get you stopped once you make it back to the states. The threat of fruit flies and other contaminants is a real issue, so you may need a permit to bring in your delicious haul of citrus or greens. The Mediterranean fruit fly epidemic that took place in California in the 1980's was caused by one piece of fruit, so it's better for the U.S. government to err on the side of caution. The 1980's fruit fly outbreak cost the government around $100 million to deal with, so letting the customs officer properly inspect your fruit may be saving our country a ton of cash, as absurd as that seems.
Nuts can be a hard to crack when it comes to airport security. Before you squirrel away those tasty nuts from the Moroccan market and stuff them in your luggage, you may want to check with the airport. Raw nuts that have been removed from their shells, such as almonds or macadamia nuts, usually get an okay when it comes to getting on the plane. But nuts must be boiled, cooked, ground, roasted, or steamed to make it through security. Be sure your souvenir snack meet these criteria before arriving at the airport! When in doubt, double-check.
You take a risk traveling back to the United States with any type of dairy in tow, but some products are almost always off limits when it comes to re-entering the country. Although solid and soft forms of cheese are okay to fly as long as they don't contain any type of meat, liquid forms of cheese are almost always turned away. Generally, you shouldn't try to bring any ricotta or cottage cheese back to America. These cheeses aren't allowed into the country if they came from countries with a high risk of foot-and-mouth disease, such as Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.
Although liquor is a common carry-on item (they even sell it duty free in airports) one type is almost never allowed through customs. Absinthe is a famously potent potable, and certain forms of it are well-known to produce hallucinogenic effects. The main reason for this is the ingredient wormwood, which isn't typically used to make modern-day absinthe. Wormwood contains a chemical called thujone, and any spirit that contains this hallucinogenic ingredient is not allowed into the United States. For that reason, you are better off enjoying the authentic recipe overseas before venturing back to America.
It can be hard to resist the colorful and authentic ceramic plates and bowls for sale in a shop or streetside market, but these souvenirs can turn out to be potentially harmful to anyone who uses them. Ceramics are the only item on our list not necessarily banned from passing customs (unless considered to be a cultural artifact) but you should do some thorough investigation for the sake of your health and and your family's. Many ceramic items made in Mexico, China, and India contain dangerous amounts of lead, which can get you seriously sick if you choose to eat from them. If you are just using them to brighten up your home, no need to worry -- but always test these overseas trinkets if you plan to use them for eating purposes.
Going through customs can be nerve-wracking. An estimated 1.6 million illegal souvenirs were confiscated by customs officers in 2012 alone. But being aware of some of the unacceptable items will make your journey home a bit easier. Safe travels!