The casual cruelty of Border Security TV
The televised surveillance of food at Australia's airports. Words by Jacinta Mulders. Illustration by Lee Lai.
Good morning, Happy New Year and welcome to Vittles!
All contributors to Vittles are paid: the base rate this season is £800 for writers (or 40p per word for smaller contributions) and £300 for illustrators. This is all made possible through user donations. A Vittles subscription costs £5/month or £45/year ─ if you’ve been enjoying the writing then please consider subscribing to keep it running and keep contributors paid. This will also give you access to the past two years of paywalled articles, which you can read on the Vittles back catalogue.
If you wish to receive the Monday newsletter for free weekly, or to also recieve Vittles Recipes on Wednesday and Vittles Restaurants on Friday for £5 a month, please subscribe below.
Welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. Our eighth piece for this season and first for the new year is by Jacinta Mulders. Today’s essay is about the show Border Security: Australian Border Force and how the surveillance of food at Australian airports is televised to foster racial biases and divisive politics. Read on for a story about how food becomes a victim of nationalistic, narrow-minded politics at policed borders, and how policies of control neglect the layered actions and sentiments of carrying food away from home.
The casual cruelty of Border Security TV
Surveilling food at Australia's airports on 'Border Security: Australia's Front Line'. Words by Jacinta Mulders. Illustration by Lee Lai.
Nine minutes into a 2018 episode of Border Security: Australia’s Front Line, I watch a platinum-blonde airport biosecurity officer designated ‘Officer Robyn’ knife a zòngzi apart with a box cutter. Eaten in Chinese communities across the world, zòngzi are glutinous rice parcels stuffed with a variety of fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed; this zòngzi is one of several that a young student from China is attempting to bring into the country. She has been stopped at Sydney Airport and looks on darkly as Officer Robyn starts picking up pieces of her edible cargo and slicing them open on a steel bench, where the contents of other passengers’ suitcases are scattered around like guts. The lighting in the airport is cold and fluorescent. Around Officer Robyn, disoriented passengers trundle by, pushing trolleys, while in the background blurred figures stagger haltingly in airport queues. Cumulatively, this evokes the feel of a factory – one where people, rather than objects, are being quality-controlled.
Zòngzi are often shaped like pyramids, but the ones that the student has packed in her suitcase are rectangular and evidently home-made. I watch as Officer Robyn takes one and slits through its carefully wrapped leaf to reveal the sticky rice inside. Another cut and she is able to pry it apart, pulling out the steamed chestnut that sits, surrounded by thin shreds of pork, in the centre. The action feels violent, as though a sacred thing has been desecrated.
‘We’re dealing with something that’s wrapped in a fresh leaf here,’ Officer Robyn says to the filming camera. ‘Can you describe what’s in this?’ she asks the student. ‘Some pork,’ the student says. ‘Pork is not allowed,’ Officer Robyn replies. The camera zooms in on the ruined zòngzi, as Officer Robyn’s fingers continue to hover over its wrecked parts.
At this point, a voiceover swoops in to interpret what is taking place. ‘Pork has the potential to be a major threat to Australian livestock, and can carry an extreme risk such as foot-and-mouth disease’, the voice, male and authoritative, states. No context is given about the food being surveilled or where it comes from. The zòngzi are not referred to by their name but instead called ‘pork rolls’ – an invented and inaccurate misnomer, particularly because the zòngzi contain barely any pork. The focus in the episode is on characterising the student’s actions – and her food – as malicious and dangerous, rather than understanding her intentions. Her seven kilograms of zòngzi are thrown out without apology, while a voiceover patronisingly concludes: ‘Now that [the passenger] has offloaded her restricted food, her first stop might be the supermarket, to grab some Aussie produce.’
I have eaten zòngzi at home, whenever my mother-in-law has made them. I have had them at restaurants, and bought strings of them out in the suburbs: sweet ones stuffed with red dates and peanuts, savoury ones filled with chicken or mushrooms and pork. I love everything about zòngzi – their attractive geometry, the leafy smell of their cooking leaves, the warm, caramelly taste of the chewy rice in my mouth – which is why it’s a shock when I watch Officer Robyn handle the zòngzi as though they are something alien. When I see her pry the chestnut out, I am reminded of all the times it has, to me, felt like a warm surprise inside the hand-packed rice.
At one point during the customs process, the student tries to justify her actions, saying, ‘They tell me to bring here to eat because there’s nothing to eat—’, but she isn’t permitted to finish. ‘Nothing to eat in Australia?!’, Officer Robyn replies, her voice incredulous. Eventually it is the officer who gets the final word, fining the student $420 and explaining the punishment’s necessity in a closing shot. It feels as though the zòngzi are the casualties of a litigious battle in which the Australian state is the necessary victor. And in this made-up drama, zòngzi are not a foodstuff eaten and enjoyed by a large part of the world – they are a foreign contaminant, a threat.
Border Security is a reality TV show that has been showing on Australia’s free-to-air Channel 7 since 2004. Originating as it did in the early noughties, a precursor to British shows such as Nothing To Declare UK and UK Border Force it can be seen as both a product and an enabler of the anti-foreigner hysteria that developed in popular Western culture in the wake of 9/11. In the years that followed, widespread panic was instrumentalised by the government to foster biases that were attached particularly to Muslims, but also to anything or anyone that Australia and its Western allies imagined to be a racial, cultural ‘other’. The Australian Government at the time succeeded in linking these biases to refugees; this culminated in an infamous incident in 2001, when the conservative Prime Minister John Howard (who also refused the entry of a carrier of predominantly Afghan refugees into the country in the 2001 ‘Tampa affair’) was re-elected after the ‘Children Overboard Affair’, in which he claimed that asylum seekers off the Australian coast had thrown their children overboard in order to be rescued. Border Security’s key drama, which hinges on themes of security, safety and protection, bolsters these political attitudes, which centre around keeping people out. The show emphasises a sanctimonious, inviolable border from which foreign bodies and products must be rejected.
The images you still see on Border Security may seem reminiscent of the country’s past, but they are consistent with how the borders of many nation states are policed in the Global North. Significantly, Australia’s model of penalising asylum seekers is touted as the gold standard for far-right leaders around the world, and has recently become the template for the new Illegal Migration Act (2023) in the UK. The act has key features in common with Australian laws; for example, barring refugees arriving in the country without a visa applying for protection, and enhancing the government’s powers to detain. Also, the slogan used by Rishi Sunak – ‘Stop the boats’ – is identical to the one rolled out by conservative Australian governments through the 2010s for the same purpose. It is these new realities of hard-line exclusion that Border Security reflects.
There are three types of segment on Border Security. In the first, incoming passengers under suspicion are filmed being taken aside and questioned about their motives for coming to Australia. In the second, incoming mail and cargo is checked and tested for drugs, smuggled produce and other illicit goods. And in the third, food and other contents of incoming passengers’ luggage is scrutinised and assessed for products that may threaten Australia’s biosecurity as dictated by the Biosecurity Act 2015. The government maintains a Biosecurity Import Conditions database, which regulates imports and any conditions placed upon them. The Australian Border Force’s website translates these rules into categories of food and other tourist and animal products, which are up for interpretation by incoming travellers. For example, fresh fruit is not allowed, honey must be declared, and ‘shelf stable’ biscuits can be brought in. The rules contain tricky nuances: meat floss is allowed, while pork biltong is not.
As an English speaker and Australian citizen who has travelled overseas and returned to Australia several times, these rules are not that difficult for me to navigate: I am accustomed to what I can and can’t bring in. The same may not be true for a person entering Australia for the first time, if English is not their first language and they have not predicted that their baggage will be subject to food-related restrictions. Australia’s prohibitions are tougher than those of any other country I have visited. Uncooked rice cannot be brought in. Noodles that are not commercially manufactured cannot be brought in. Nuts – even packaged ones – must be declared for inspection on arrival. The list is comprehensive and the enforcement is rigid. In the messy, irregular and highly personal acts of travel and migration, it’s easy to imagine omissions occurring while a person is packing their suitcase with foodstuffs that remind them of home.
The hawkish tenor of Border Security’s broadcasts does not owe itself to biosecurity laws but to the strategic political agendas of policing playing out on a national scale; its segments are emboldened by graphics, dramatic music and text reminiscent of a crime show to reflect this. The programme’s imagery develops a sense of spectacle by using montages spliced together from unappetising and unattractive cargoes and enhances a sense of urgency by using maps of Australia, shields, and the word ‘Alarm’ in close-up. Passengers are reduced to their nationalities, becoming ‘this Chinese student’ or ‘this Korean couple.’ In most cases, the biosecurity officers questioning the passengers raise their voices and speak in a blunt, scornful manner, as if the passengers lack not English but intelligence.
It also seems as though the majority of those targeted for filming at biosecurity are from East or Southeast Asia; from countries which represent and have represented a high proportion of Australia’s immigrant intake for the last few decades. (This surveillance also reflects a set of policies known as White Australia Policy, which curbed the immigration of non-white people into the country, until it was formally abolished in 1973.) During the filmed interrogations, the ordinariness of the food the passengers carry is often ignored by the officers in question. In an episode from the show’s sixteenth season, a man returning from China is caught out with vacuum-packed beef snacks; in another, a woman designated ‘Officer Nicole’ is shown examining multipacks of ramyeon and cylinders of tinned tuna belonging to a couple from Korea. The passengers look on, bamboozled and embarrassed. It is clear they do not know they have done something wrong.
Although it’s extremely uncomfortable to watch uniformed staff belittle and barrage arrivals at immigration, the segments of Border Security in which passengers are interrogated about their food always stand out to me for their cruelty. Watching home-made meals from afar be prodded and probed makes me think about the opposite: the softness of the familial and social contexts in which the bag has been packed and the foodstuffs prepared. Where is the food from, and whose mouth is it intended for? Who wrapped and tied seven kilograms of zòngzi for transportation to a faraway place? Even as packing takes place in private rooms, at the border, intimate details become suddenly public. Via Border Security, personal actions and preferences become sources of interrogation and shame.
The need for biosecurity in Australia is clear. The country’s history is littered with examples of foreign species being brought in and ravaging catastrophes on native ecosystems. While I do not contest this, what I object to is the spectacle that is made of rejection in Border Security and the way that, via the show, foreign food items are tethered to notions of othering and disgust. Instead of being interested in the diversity of global foods, the show cultivates an aesthetic of putrefaction and revulsion in which otherwise ordinary food is made to look as bizarre as possible. In most episodes, the association between incoming food and disease, pests, and vermin is also deliberately cultivated through the language of the voiceover and biosecurity officers, and the ‘bad smell’ of foods is emphasised. As soon as some tinned pork is found in the suitcase of the Korean couple from season sixteen, Officer Nicole is quick to mention the risk of foot-and-mouth disease and ‘African swine fever’ –painting the food as contaminated, even if it isn’t. In these ways, unfamiliarity and disgust is created and then peddled by the show.
The only place I watch Border Security these days is at my in-laws’ house. On occasion, the family pauses while eating dumplings or a mung bean jelly salad to watch the show on the TV to the side of their dinner table that they keep turned on. My mother-in-law chuckles uncomfortably as she remembers the time she tried to bring vacuum-sealed beef jerky from China and was forced to throw it out. And I recount all the times I’ve filled my suitcases with food: Tim Tams for friends in the UK, fish spice mix and Sarawak pepper for my Mum from our year in Brunei. I think about the sackfuls of Rossana candies my grandmother always brought back from Italy to remind her of the country she left behind as a teenager. The fact that Border Security is still running twenty years after its commencement, demonstrates that, at least for some, there remains a kind of lazy, if watchable, magnetism in the cruelty of seeing a person be punished at the Australian border because of their difference. Are people made to feel that their safety is dependent on this demonstration of blunt force at the border? Or is it because we wouldn’t wish the same on ourselves?
Borders can be a site of fertility. They are places where fruitful interactions can take place and new ideas can emerge from an environment of cross-pollination and exchange. The sharing of foods is thrilling, as is the possibility of a nation that thrives on eating habits that are transcultural, inclusive, and abundant with new influences. As such, each of the small interactions that occur on Border Security is a failed opportunity – to explain things properly, to acknowledge distance travelled, to convey a sense of welcome and to create new cultures. This, I think, is where the real embarrassment of the show lies: in its insistence on one type of Australia, it tethers itself to the worst elements of the country’s past and projects it into a future that is closed, reactionary, and unapologetically racist.
In the past week alone, I have eaten deep-fried coconut and banana fritters from a Vietnamese food stand in Cabramatta, bought lechon from a Filipino catering business down the road, and baked a chicken using the recipe of a Chinese-Australian chef. In the inner city on Friday nights, tables consume platters of thinly sliced bresaola and bowls of buffalo stracciatella. Like in many cities, one of the thrills of Sydney (where I live) is the ability to participate in a spectrum of food cultures just by travelling across suburbs. Instead of being alive to this variegated reality, Border Security peddles a worldview of ‘Australian food’ and ‘Australian produce’ as things which are assimilated into the country’s anglicised culinary history. But this is a vague concept in itself. What is quintessentially Australian? A cos lettuce salad? A meat pie? A pavlova? Everyone knows that the dessert originated in New Zealand.
The truth is that what is considered ‘Australian food’ is in a state of constant and necessary flux. Indeed, in a recent Guardian article about what Nigella Lawson eats when she’s in Sydney, the writer Ann Ding claimed that ‘“modern Australian dining” … mostly just means “Italian”’. But when my grandparents were newly arrived Italian immigrants in the 1960s, the idea that their food could ever have been quintessentially Australian would have made them laugh in disbelief. According to Border Security, Australian food cannot be zòngzi, despite the fact that it is consumed in communities across Australia and by many Australians born abroad, including my mother-in-law. The show is not capacious enough to allow that vision.
Although Border Control reflects a pessimistic and sheltered reality, there is, happily, a great dissonance between the enforcement of biosecurity strictures in Australian airports and the nuance and pleasure that exists in the intersectional culinary realities of people’s lives. Zòngzi continue to be made and eaten in households around Australia. Ramyeon floods supermarket aisles. Pork floss is eaten with tofu in restaurants all over the country. And all these foods and more will continue to be eaten in Australian towns and cities, long into the future, despite Border Security’s narrow-minded histrionics. I am confident that their presence in Australia and its culinary cultures will outlive the show.
Jacinta Mulders was shortlisted for the 2022 Stinging Fly / FBA Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Believer, Australian Book Review, and numerous other publications. She is working on a collection of short stories.
Lee Lai is an Australian cartoonist living in Tio’tia:ke (known as Montreal, Quebec). She has made comics for the New Yorker, McSweeneys and the New York Times. Her graphic novel Stone Fruit was released in 2021 with Fantagraphics, Sarbacane, Coconino and other publishers.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.