TSA is the Final Arbiter of What You Can — and Cannot — Feed Your Baby

A Hawaiian family traveling on Sunday night with their one and a half year old baby was stopped at the security checkpoint at Honolulu airport when a TSA screener refused to allow them to pass with their baby food.

Passengers are permitted to bring any amount of baby food, breast milk or formula necessary for the flight through checkpoints in spite of standard rules limiting the amount of checkpoints that can go through security. However it seems the TSA takes it upon itself to decide what is and is not appropriate for babies to eat.

Holt says his son Brady doesn’t eat dairy or drink formula. He loves poi.

The family took the 16 oz. poi container out of their bag and put it on the TSA conveyor belt.

“Every other city and every other airport we’ve gone to they’re very understanding,” Brady’s dad said.

“They say, ‘Okay it’s baby food, we cannot argue that,'” he said.

Holt said he was carrying Brady on his shoulder when a TSA agent grabbed the poi and told Holt he couldn’t bring the poi in his carry-on.

Credit: bshams

The family was worried — this was the only food they had for their baby for the six hour flight. And the TSA supervisor called on by the screener insisted that it wasn’t baby food “because there’s no label on poi containers marking it as such.”

Naturally different branches of government disagree on the matter, Hawaii’s Department of Health specifically says poi is a baby food (.pdf).

Fortunately another TSA screener told the supervisor that poi is a baby food and the supervisor was willing to accept their colleague as an authority on the matter.

This simple and frustrating interaction illustrates the fundamental tension between rules and discretion in law. Law must be objective, with clear rules, so people know what is and isn’t permitted — otherwise they’ll never know when they’re out of danger. However to be just and to avoid absurdities (and also to retain public support for the law) there must also be discretion so that laws aren’t enforced in ways people find repugnant.

Liquids greater than 3 ounces aren’t allowed past the security checkpoint, that’s the rule, but TSA realizes the public won’t support not allowing babies to eat so baby food can go through the checkpoint. But that then leaves the TSA screeners in the position of deciding what is, and isn’t, baby food. When what the law means and when it’s enforced is at the discretion of those enforcing it we’re always at risk of punishment or injustice.

This tradeoff repeats itself any time and any where that government enforces rules. Travelers just come into direct contact with it in obvious ways most often with airport security.

(HT: Reid F.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary — The TSA agent is probably the same moron in Hawaii who told me last year that she had to add up all of my liquids and that they couldn’t exceed 3 oz. in TOTAL!

  2. Since they traveled as a family, one member could have used his or her carryon liquids allowance to bring the baby food repackaged into 3 ounce containers, ensuring the child had at least enough for the flight. Not exactly convenient but not difficult either and a simple way to avoid delays when going through security with baby food or other liquids needed for a special diet.

  3. So, it was allowed because TSA conferred and made the right decision. How about saving such a headline for situations where truly bad decisions are made?

  4. Let’s pause for a moment and remember this child was 18 months old. Not a helpless infant like you might be picturing. I know this post is about TSA rules and procedures but I have less sympathy for a family who coddles their child with a single-foodstuff diet and can’t be bothered to somehow repackage it into TSA compliant containers. You created this problem you might have to bend over backwards to deal with it instead of assuming you can bend every rule your way.

    My 19-month old eats what we eat.

  5. Oh, Hawaii TSA. These folks once told me my daughter’s play doh was a liquid…basic chemistry, folks…

  6. People brestfeed their child long past 18 months, if the parents and kid wants poi, then so be it. The point is rules need to be published, and you shouldn’t need to escalate 3 levels to get an answer you like.

  7. The 100mL rule is baseless. If a terrorist group wanted to really do harm, limiting liquids to 100mL wouldn’t stop them.

    The original 2006 plot that led to this rule was based on some group carrying nitroglycerine to blow up some aircraft. The brainwashed fools spoiled it for tens of millions of passengers around the globe.

    It does nothing other than annoy passengers and help airside companies profit from passengers buying liquids.

  8. Denver TSA made me throw chocolate milk for my 2 year old earlier this month. It was either that or everyone gets swabbed and tested. What a random policy? On a 2 hr close intl connection, no thanks.

  9. Steve S says: , Poi is the one thing anyone can eat no matter what food allergy they have. Let’s be compassionate and not judgmental shall we?

  10. correction needed:

    ” Passengers are permitted to bring any amount of baby food, breast milk or formula necessary for the flight through checkpoints in spite of standard rules limiting the amount of ~~~~checkpoints~~~~ that can go through security. “

  11. The behavior of TSA checkpoint agents is a reflection of TSA management. Stop busting on front-line agents and start belittling TSA management when you feel their behavior is sub-standard. If the HNL screeners are underachievers, it’s because of a lack of training and leadership.

    @thesilb – your precious Play-doh may not be a liquid but it is a paste and therefore subject to the 3-1-1 rules. A wad of plastic explosives the size of a play-doh can would blow an airplane in half.

  12. Until airlines are better about carrying milk alternatives, I’ll have to bring my kid’s almond or soy milk through the security. Not every airport has non-sugar laden versions available for young kids. While I know my kid CAN drink water for an entire 8 hour flight, he shouldn’t have to. I am fine with pausing and having TSA swab his stuff if necessary.

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