In February 2020, reports started to circulate about a traveler from Beijing who had a “suitcase full of dead birds” confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after he tried to “disguise” the item as pet food:
These reports were based on a genuine incident that occurred at Washington Dulles International Airport on Feb. 10, 2020. However, this traveler did not attempt to “disguise” this item as a pet food product or try to hide it from customs officials. The traveler declared the single, sealed package of pet food to customs officials. And while those residing in the United States may not consider dead birds as a treat for pets, small freeze-dried birds, such as quail, are sold as pet food in Asia.
This rumor spun off of a release from CBP about a bag of dead birds that was confiscated from a traveler’s luggage at Dulles:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agriculture specialists recently seized a package of tiny dead birds in a passenger’s baggage at Washington Dulles International Airport.
The traveler arrived on a flight from Beijing, China January 27 and was destined to an address in Prince George’s County, Maryland. During a baggage examination, CBP agriculture specialists discovered a package with pictures of a cat and dog that the passenger said was cat food. The package contained a bunch of unknown small birds, about 2.5 to 3.5 inches in length.
While this was a rather mundane incident, it occurred during heightened concerns about the spread of a new coronavirus in China and sparked a flurry of news coverage, some of which appeared to play on people’s fears. Note the creepy, ominous music in this clip from WUSA:
Other reports contained misleading details.
For instance, some outlets reported that this person’s suitcase — and not a sealed package in a suitcase — was full of dead birds. Others were overly dismissive about the traveler’s claim that these birds were pet food, writing that “a package of tiny dead birds [was] passed off as pet food.” The Daily Mail went as far as to claim this traveler had “disguised” these dead birds as pet food.
This led some on social media to believe that the passenger had ulterior motives, had hidden this package from authorities, or was attempting to spread disease in the United States:
Anything hidden coming from China should be banned and those people should be punished. There was an Ulterior Motive there. Call for an investigation. Some people are wanting to spread everything to the United States and everywhere else in the world.
Other social media users wondered if this was an act of terrorism:
Does anyone know why someone would travel with dead birds packaged to look like pet food? Is it cultural food item/medicine, it’s it terrorism? A crazy person who freeze dried all her dead birds for companionship?
There is nothing online for this answer that I could find.
We reached out to CBP for more information about this incident.
The agency told us that the traveler declared this item to border agents. In other words, no one attempted to “hide” it from officials. CBP also confirmed that the single package was sealed, so the suitcase wasn’t full of loose dead birds, and that it wasn’t a package of pet food emptied and filled again with dead birds in an attempt to smuggle it through customs. Lastly, CBP told us that this was treated as a “routine case of a traveler in possession of prohibited agriculture products.”
Steve Sapp, a public affairs officer with CBP, told us:
- No (he was not arrested).The traveler declared pet food and we found pet food. It may be a completely legitimate pet food product in China, but dead raw birds are prohibited from China because they pose a potential threat of introducing highly pathogenic avian influenza to our poultry industry and potentially to humans. Travelers are very rarely ever charged criminally for possessing prohibited agriculture products. When CBP discovers prohibited agriculture products in the possession of a traveler who does not declare the products, then CBP has the option to asses a civil penalty. That penalty could be as high as $2,000; however, CBP usually mitigates that penalty down to $300 for first offenses and $500 to repeat violators, or to trusted traveler members and airline crew.
- The birds were in a sealed package.
- CBP treated this as a routine case of a traveler in possession of prohibited agriculture products.
It should also be noted that while the words “pet food” don’t typically conjure up images of dead birds for those residing in the United States, this is a genuine pet food product sold in China. From what we can tell, this package contained “small freeze dried quail.” While we haven’t been able to find this specific brand of quail, we did find several similar pet food products:
To sum up: A traveler packed a bag of an unusual pet food in his luggage while traveling from Beijing to the United States. That traveler declared the item with border officials and was told that the item, which contained dead birds, was a prohibited agriculture product. CBP then confiscated and destroyed the item.
But as this relatively mundane incident occurred amidst an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, it sparked a rash of news coverage and stoked fears about the potential spread of disease.
Read CBP’s full press release on this incident here.