WASHINGTON, D.C. - Effective Oct. 1, the civil penalty for failing to declare agricultural items at U.S. ports of entry will cost first-time offenders $300. The penalty for the second violation goes up to $500.

The key to avoiding the penalty is to declare all agricultural items and present them to Customs and Border Protection for inspection so that an agriculture specialist can determine if it is admissible or not.

Erlinda Byrd, a spokesperson with DHS, said the penalties for first-time offenses used to range from $100 to $250. The new penalty of $300 is now across-the-board to make it uniform, she said.

CBP is seeking to prevent the introduction of harmful plant and animal pest or disease that a traveler may unintentionally bring into the U.S. through agricultural products. Restricted items include meat, fruits, vegetables, plants, soil and products made from animal or plant materials. That single piece of fruit or plant could be harboring a harmful plant and animal pest or disease, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly, that could cause serious damage.

The fruit fly, or Medfly is a danger to more than 250 different hosts, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. If allowed to become established in an area, the price tag to eradicate it could be billions of dollars.

"We want to impress upon travelers how serious and damaging foreign plant and animal pests and diseases could be,"said Jeffrey Grode, executive director for CBP Agriculture Programs and Liaison office. "Agricultural pests and diseases are a threat to U.S. food crops and livestock. Some of these organisms are highly contagious animal diseases that could cause severe economic damage to the livestock industry and losses in production, which would mean increased costs for meat and dairy products.

Other pests can affect property values by damaging lawns, ornamental plants, trees, and even homes."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security are partners in this effort to protect American agriculture against the introduction of foreign plant and animal pests and diseases at our nation's ports of entry. Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service develops the policies that determine what agricultural products can come into the country and what products pose a risk and should be kept out. U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforce these agricultural policies at ports of entry.

Additional information is available at the CBP Web site.

More information on agricultural policy is online at the Plant Protection and Quarantine Web site.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.

SOURCE: U.S. Customs and Border Protection news release.