It is basically an unwritten law that travelers returning home from abroad must bring gifts for family and friends, as well as something for themselves. An entire industry has sprung up to meet this need, with duty-free and souvenir shops at even the smallest airports around the world.
This often involves food items, as demonstrated by the cornucopia of pineapple cakes, dried fruits, teas and snacks lining the hallways to departure gates at Taiwan’s international airports.
Taiwan was a late arrival to the idea that not all items brought by travelers should be allowed to enter the country, but over the past two decades it has enacted laws and regulations stipulating what is admissible and administered fines and other punishments for those who contravene these rules.
All airlines, Taiwanese or foreign-owned, show a short cartoon before landing in Taiwan that warns passengers about bringing in prohibited items.
Over the past year, customs and border officers have had to become even more vigilant as African swine fever spreads in China, even though the government was slow to react to initial reports of outbreaks in August last year as the incurable disease spread to several nations bordering China and even further afield.
The media have also been flooded with news stories about the fever, tougher customs inspections and increased fines for bringing pork products from China and several other nations.
Which makes it all the more unfathomable to understand why anyone would consider trying to bring in mooncakes — a traditional Mid-Autumn Festival treat — from China and its territories, considering that pork is a mainstay for most savory mooncakes.
Three Taiwanese on Sunday found out the hard way that they should have been paying closer attention to the news when they were each handed a NT$200,000 fine for attempting to bring in Chinese-made mooncakes that contained pork.
One had only 750g of the banned treats, but was still fined the same as the other two, who had 14kg and 2.04kg, respectively.
They were just one-quarter of the people caught with banned mooncakes in their luggage between Aug. 1 and Wednesday, and there are likely to be several more before the festival begins on Friday next week.
Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine data show that a majority of the 850-plus people who have faced fines for bringing in pork products from African swine fever-affected areas since September last year are Chinese, which is not surprising given the limited amount of information available to Chinese about the spread of the disease in their nation.
However, ignorance has not stopped customs inspectors from handing out fines.
Taiwanese do not have the luxury of this excuse, given the government’s public relations campaigns about the disease, increased luggage checks and whopping increases in the financial penalties for those caught with pork products in their luggage.
Perhaps Sunday’s trio, like others before them, had each been in a rush to catch their flight and just grabbed boxes of mooncakes on their way to their departure gate without stopping to read the list of ingredients. Perhaps they were gripped with a “lunar madness” for novelty mooncakes.
Whatever the reason, they are surely ruing their oversight: NT$200,000 is probably far more than they each spent on their trips to China.
However, it does make one wonder about the efficacy of the various government public relations campaigns and educational outreach efforts, whether on African swine fever or other topics, and what it will take to make people take disease-prevention efforts seriously.
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