Australian authorities have defended slapping a Kiwi gran with a $3300 fine for bringing a chicken sandwich through border control, saying she needed an import permit for the meat product and could have faced a much higher penalty.
Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry responded this evening to a furore after the pensioner told the Herald she felt the stiff fine was out of all proportion to her moment of forgetfulness and that the saga had had a huge and lasting impact on her life.
The 77-year-old Canterbury woman, June Armstrong, cried in the airport after she was sprung with the uneaten sandwich and handed the $3300 fine on May 2. She bought the sandwich in Christchurch before tossing it in her bag and forgetting it.
One border patrol worker told her she could appeal the fine and “strongly advised” she did, Armstrong said.
She said she had tried to appeal within the 28-day payment period, only to get generic automatic replies.
She has described her anguish at having to pay the fine given she relied on income from her and her husband’s pension, telling the Herald about sleepless nights where she fretted over how she would afford it.
“My husband kept saying, ‘Just pay it.’ I said, ‘It’s our pension, we can’t afford this’.”
After paying, she sent another email asking why she was fined when it was her first infringement, why the fine was so high, and mentioning that the sandwich was sealed.
A spokeswoman for Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry told the Herald Armstrong would have needed an import permit to bring the chicken sandwich into the country.
“Meat has strict import conditions which can change quickly based on disease outbreaks,” the spokeswoman said. “Uncanned meats, including vacuum-sealed items, are not allowed into Australia unless accompanied by an import permit.”
Armstrong didn’t declare the sandwich, having forgotten it, but did declare prescription medication she was carrying.
“Where travellers fail to declare risk items,” the department spokeswoman said, “they may be given an infringement notice up to AU$6260 ($6790).
“All food products must be declared on arrival and may be inspected to ensure they comply with import conditions. Items that do not meet these conditions are not permitted into Australia.”
The department spokeswoman pointed to biosecurity announcements on flights which told travellers what their declaration obligations were, as well as signage about it around arrivals areas in Australian airports.
Six months on from the incident, Armstrong was realistic she would not get her money back, but wanted what happened to her to be a warning to others.
“I should let it go, and my husband says I should, but they just don’t give me any answers.
“Everybody I show the fine to is dumbfounded, they just can’t believe it.”
Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022 and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.
Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.