I am all for finding unique Rome souvenirs, but buying cheese in Italy to take back to the US is a slightly tricky undertaking. Taking cheese home with you is not impossible, but it does require a bit of care so that you can be sure that you are not running afoul of the US Customs rules.
I recently went cheese shopping with a friend who was visiting from America so I have a few tips on what you can and cannot bring home in terms of “fresh” foods from Italy.
Bringing Cheese to the US
Long story short, US Customs does not allow you to bring any unpasteurized cheese that has been aged for less than 60 days.
That is the same rule that the US uses about raw milk cheese for sale domestically. Any unpasteurized cheese must be aged for 60 days or more in order to be allowed. The thinking here is that the act of pasteurization (essentially, heating the milk to a certain temperature) kills harmful bacteria.
Many of the cheeses produced in Italy are unpasteurized (which is something to keep in mind if you are traveling to Italy while pregnant). Pasteurization does kill bad bacteria, but it also kills good bacteria – the kind of bacteria that give Italian cheese some of its most delicious qualities. Raw milk cheese is more of a thing in Italy than in the US simply because more of the cheese making still happens on a smaller, artisan scale.
Aging cheese removes moisture and it is moisture that breeds bacteria. Therefore, it is generally accepted that aging cheese produces a similar food safety result as pasteurization. However, the U.S. decision about 60 days being the safe point is a bit arbitrary.
Cheese Allowed in the US from Italy
The fresh and semi-aged cheese in Italy is amazing but it also doesn’t travel super well. Mozzarella from Caserta should be eaten the same day it is produced, which is not exactly a shelf life that bodes well for transatlantic flights. It is also not allowed.
The good news is that you can legally bring back some cheese from Italy to the US and this aged cheese is the kind that will better survive a voyage in your suitcase. The US rule is that cheese has to be aged for two months, which is not a problem for something like Parmigiano-Reggiano which is aged for a MINIMUM of 12 months.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s other rule is that the cheese has to be for personal use, so no packing a suitcase full of Parmigiano to re-sell in your hometown.
If you do end up buying cheese in Italy, most shops and even food stalls will be able to vacuum pack the cheese for you. Removing the air eliminates as much risk as possible if the cheese can’t be refrigerated for the trip and helps to prevent spoilage.
And can you bring salami back from Italy to the US? Nope. Meat products are banned. Stock up on aged cheese and book your next trip back.
Yes, you can bring some cheese from Italy back to America, but I recommend eating as much as possible before you go home. To get you started, here’s a cheese lover’s guide to Rome.