Can I take South African biltong home with me?

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So, you’ve been on vacation to beautiful, sunny South Africa. You’ve had a chance to taste some delicious biltong in the country that first invented it.

Maybe you’ve even discovered a secret hole-in-the-wall biltong delicatessen with the most heerlike biltong in the world. Now you’d like to share the experience with your friends and family back home.

Trevor Noah’s anecdote on importing Biltong into the US

Oops. Customs and excise seem to be involved in your gift buying! As biltong is a food item, there will always be laws on who can import and export it. These laws can also be very different from country to country.

And yes, while it may surprise you to learn this, even taking a food item home as a gift or personal use counts as ‘import and export’ when we’re talking about food!

While we’ve done our best to make sure this is only the very best, up-to-date information on who can import biltong and remember that excise rules can change quickly, it’s always best to have a quick word with your local area authorities.

Who can you ask about bringing food back as a gift in your luggage? It’s usually the jurisdiction of your local Department of Agriculture. If you can’t find a direct answer on their website, ask! They’re usually happy to help citizens who want to do the right thing.

Why don’t some countries allow biltong imports?

You may have asked yourself, “Why doesn’t my country have South African biltong?” before.

The reason it can be difficult to find biltong in some places is actually due to a technicality! But more on that in a minute.

There’s very strict legislation on the movement of anything edible in many countries, whether plant or meat-based, cooked or fresh, for very good reason.

Food and drink can sometimes spread bacteria and disease if it’s not properly packaged and handled.

When this is from species foreign to that country, even seeds that accidentally hitch a ride in your food can be a problem!

We also have situations where certain animal diseases from one country aren’t present in another. If this is the case, they will want to police any activity that could spread into their territory very closely.

This is why live animal and raw meat exports often have far higher scientific sanitation standards to meet than with some cooked or heat-treated products.

Globally, many local farmers are also supported closely by their government. This is also very understandable! They do, after all, put food on our table every day. This means that there may be rules in place ensuring that local producers of a product get priority.

In fact, a food or drink item may be banned from import into the country simply because there’s a similar product available that’s made domestically, and the competition isn’t allowed. Sometimes, nation-wide religious issues will also come into play.

Of course, most of this legislation is purely focused on food industries, not tourists who want to bring home some snacks from their holiday. But it’s these laws that can impart the unwary traveler, too.

Now we know why some countries are fussy about food imports in general, let’s dive a little deeper into the world of biltong, specifically.

Is biltong raw?

Remember that technicality we spoke about earlier? The correct answer to “Is biltong raw?” is “no, but…”. We have an in-depth article on this matter, but let’s look a little closer at some specifics.

Speaking scientifically, cured foods are not raw. They have lost many of the properties of the original raw meat, including their quick deterioration.

After all, when was the last time you could pack a steak away in a cool, dry place for 3 months and still enjoy it? You may even have heard that a certain fish is ‘cooked’ by adding lime or lemon juice- it’s another example of curing.  This transformation from raw to cured is the exact reason our ancestors invented the curing process.  They needed a safe, healthy way to preserve their food from the perils of being raw.

So biltong is a cured, or preserved, food.

Many countries are, however, incredibly strict in their technical definitions of certain processes and food treatments. To meet the definition of ‘cooked meat’ under many countries’ guidelines for food imports, heat must be applied to the item.

Often it has to reach a specific temperature, too. And, for most countries, if an item is not heat-treated to that specific temperature, it’s raw…even if that doesn’t really make much common sense.

Proper biltong is never heat-treated. At all. It’s part of what gives it its unique flavor profile and helps it stay so tender. This in contrast to Beef Jerky. So sometimes, under law, biltong is classed as ‘raw’ meat, even though it very much is not.

So, can I bring biltong into the U.S for personal consumption?

Yes, you can, although there are a lot of hoops to jump through. The meat has to meet certain criteria, including being fully deboned, not frozen immediately, properly cured, and meets a set water-to-protein ratio. Most high-quality biltongs will easily meet these.

You will then be able to apply for a certificate that will allow you to bring the meat through customs, and there are fees involved. It is generally not practical for travelers to do any of this. This is why you will see it stated as illegal for many purposes.

Can I bring biltong home to other countries?

As with the U.S.A, Germany, and many other E.U countries, some travelers take the risk and place it in hand luggage, as some areas will make exceptions for personal consumption. But it is technically forbidden.


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