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Importing Vanilla Beans to the U.S.: Everything You Need to Know

Close up of vanilla beans and their flower
Vanilla beans are only imported from specific countries and are required to comply with FDA regulations. Learn more about how you can start importing vanilla beans to the U.S.
By
Natalie Kienzle
January 25, 2022
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Last Modified: February 4, 2022

Vanilla: the flavor, the smell, the taste; it truly is everywhere. Americans' craving for vanilla has made the United States the number one importer of vanilla beans in the world. That level of demand has made importing vanilla beans to the U.S. a very profitable venture. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the import of vanilla beans and other vanilla products into the U.S. Vanilla beans require careful packaging in order to prevent damage to the product and loss of flavor. The majority of vanilla beans purchased worldwide are imported from Madagascar. 

Continue reading for a simple breakdown on how to import vanilla beans into the U.S. and turn a profit while doing so. 

Where Does the U.S. Import Vanilla Beans From?

Lush mountains and forest

There are relatively few places in the world that are able to successfully grow and cultivate vanilla beans. The island nation of Madagascar is actually the world’s largest exporter of vanilla beans. The United States imports from Madagascar and other nations. 

The top five nations for U.S. import of vanilla beans are as follows:

Nation of OriginPercentage of Total U.S. Vanilla Bean Imports*
Madagascar79.15%
Indonesia11.75%
Uganda3.64%
Papua New Guinea1.63%
India1.29%
*values based on imports from January to October of 2021 according to the U.S. Department of Commerce ITA

This list does not include nations from which the U.S. imports other vanilla products. 

What Makes Madagascar Vanilla Special?

Rolls of vanilla beans stacked together

Vanilla flavor or scent that most people recognize actually comes from a chemical compound known as vanillin. The concentration of vanillin in the bean varies among the various growers. This compound combined with other environmental factors creates the unique aromas of vanilla varieties. Vanilla beans grown in Madagascar generally contain the highest concentration of vanillin which creates a rich flavor that is prized worldwide. 

Why is Vanilla So Expensive?

When pricing vanilla, it is important to distinguish between the vanilla that is cultivated from the vanilla bean and the vanilla that is cultivated from the chemical compound ‘vanillin’ which is commonly extracted from wood pulp. 

The latter can be produced more easily and at a significantly reduced cost. In fact, the majority of vanilla flavoring in the global market comes from these sources.

The cost of vanilla extracted from vanilla beans is directly impacted by the labor-intensive way it is grown. The majority of commercially grown vanilla beans must be pollinated by hand, flower by flower during their blooming period, which is a window of less than 24 hours. Each pollinated flower will produce only one vanilla bean. To date, no mechanized tool has been developed to make this process any easier. 

For this reason, vanilla orchids that produce vanilla bean pods are incredibly difficult to cultivate en masse. Even in the wild, vanilla beans are very rare because they are pollinated by a specific type of bee found only in Mexico and a few other places around Central America. 

When vanilla orchids began getting exported to other parts of the world, no other natural pollinator could be found that would allow the bean to be cultivated outside of its natural environment. 

In the 1840s a technique was discovered to hand-pollinate the vanilla flower. It was only with this discovery that cultivation of vanilla beans outside of Mexico and Central America became possible. Madagascar and other islands of the Indian Ocean have a climate suitable for its cultivation and have since become the leading producers. 

Vanilla is currently considered the second most expensive spice in the world. 

Requirements for Importing Vanilla Beans

Baskets filled with rolls of vanilla beans

Officially, vanilla beans are a vegetable product along with coffee, tea, and mate. Since they fall under the category of ‘food’, the import of vanilla beans is regulated by the FDA. As an importer, you’re responsible for making sure those food products are correctly labeled and safe for consumption. 

Since 2002, the Bioterrorism Act requires that importers provide prior notification to the FDA before importing food products. This prior notification allows the FDA to partner more effectively with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during inspections. A smoother inspection process is good for you as the importer. 

Two ways you can provide prior notification are through the:

  • Automated Broker Interface of the Automated Commercial Environment (ABI/ACE): The current interface between CBP and FDA for document submissions. 
  • Prior Notice System Interface (PNSI): Provided for those who may not be able to file through CBP and who prefer an interactive filing system. 

Any holds placed on imported shipments are at best an inconvenience to you as an importer. However, when food is involved, those inconvenient holds can become disastrous due to the limited shelf life of food. 

Using an experienced and Licensed Customs Broker who can guide you through needed documentation requirements may help get your products out of port and onto customer shelves faster. 

Need Help Importing Vanilla Beans?

Schedule a 1-on-1 consulting session with one of our Licensed Customs Brokers and get answers to your importing questions today

Do I Need a License to Import Vanilla Beans?

A license specific to vanilla beans is not required for import into the United States. However, the country of origin may require you to meet specific exporter qualifications. 

The nation of Madagascar, for instance, is actively trying to protect its farmers. They ensure the high quality of their product is not diminished by counterfeiters attempting to pass off a mediocre product as being vanilla from Madagascar. Because nearly 80% of imported vanilla beans are from Madagascar, familiarizing yourself with their export requirements is highly recommended. 

Madagascar’s Ministry of Commerce maintains a list of authorized exporters. To export vanilla out of Madagascar, you must be on that list. 

Other requirements for exporting vanilla beans or other vanilla products out of Madagascar include:

  • Having a phytosanitary certificate and customs form
  • Filing an invoice and proof of bank transfer with Malagasy customs
  • Labeling vanilla by harvest year and season
  • Upon export, be as close to the minimum price per kg (in USD) per MOC and Madagascar’s Integrated Exchange Transaction Management System (SIG-OC). 

There are also three separate taxes to be paid when exporting out of Madagascar. Regardless of which nation you choose to import vanilla beans from, hiring an expert familiar with international customs is your best bet for a smooth and profitable transaction. Licensed Customs Brokers can provide this guidance.

Importing Vanilla Beans vs Vanilla Extract

A bottle of vanilla extract next to vanilla beans

Although vanilla beans and vanilla extract have the same source, vanilla extract is classified under different HTS codes than vanilla beans. If you are planning to import a mix of vanilla beans and vanilla extract, you must use distinct HTS codes. You should also be aware that the HTS codes will differ based on the source of the vanillin. 

Additionally, there is no distinction made between vanilla extract from vanilla beans and extract derived from other sources of vanillin. The FDA defines it as a liquid solution containing vanilla constituents that can come from vanilla beans or any other source of vanillin. For it to be a pure extract, it should also be at least 35% alcohol and contain 13.35 oz of vanilla beans per gal.  

The variety of vanilla extract categories, from pure vanilla extract to the oleo-resin vanilla concentrate, creates further shipping classification distinctions. Unlike vanilla beans, which are generally imported from relatively few places, vanilla extract can be imported into the U.S. from multiple nations.

To avoid mishaps and document confusion, be sure to consult with a Licensed Customs Broker with experience in international trade. 

Other Vanilla Product Imports

While the vanilla bean itself is a huge import product, America’s sweet tooth means we also import many related products. Some of these products are direct derivatives of the vanilla bean, while others are based on vanillin, the chemical compound that gives vanilla its distinct taste and smell. 

These products include:

  • Vanilla Powder: Made up of ground vanilla beans
  • Vanilla Paste: A blended mix of concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla powder
  • Vanilla Sugar: Refined sugar that is scented with vanilla
  • Vanillin: The chemical compound that can be extracted from natural sources often used in natural and artificial flavorings

To make a truly exhaustive list of all products imported into the U.S. that contain vanilla or vanilla additives, whether as a scent or flavor, you would need to consider everything from puddings and ice cream to candles and hand lotions. The possibilities are nearly endless. 

How Are Vanilla Beans Shipped?

Unripe vanilla beans yet to be harvested

The shipment of vanilla beans will depend on where they are arriving from. Some vanilla bean-producing nations have laws regarding how exports of beans should be handled. For instance, many prohibit the export of vanilla beans that have been vacuum-sealed because it is believed the plastic and lack of moisture has a negative impact on flavor and smell. 

Consulting with the commerce department of the nation you choose to import from may be the best way to ensure your shipments are in compliance with local standards. 

As for arrival in a U.S. port of entry, per the FDA, vanilla beans are a food. As such, labeling, packaging, and shipping must comply with U.S. safety and sanitary standards. The FDA puts forth several regulations regarding the import of consumables, whether for people or animals. Receiving food facilities must be registered with the FDA. The FDA must also be given prior notice before any and all food shipments. 

Import Vanilla Beans With USA Customs Clearance

Wanting to make sure your clients get their sweet tooth satisfied? Partner with USA Customs Clearance and consult with experienced and Licensed Customs Brokers for all your vanilla import needs. 

Food products only have so much shelf life after arrival. Don’t risk getting your shipment bogged down in transit. A 30-minute one-on-one session with one of our experienced Customs Brokers can provide you with guidance on fee calculation, proper documentation, HTS code clarification, and more. 

Protect your investment by getting help from our experts to provide you with clear direction. Give us a call today at (855) 912-0406 for a no-obligation price quote and keep your business moving forward. 

Need Help Importing Vanilla Beans?

Schedule a 1-on-1 consulting session with one of our Licensed Customs Brokers and get answers to your importing questions today

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3 comments on “Importing Vanilla Beans to the U.S.: Everything You Need to Know”

  1. Hi,I am looking for vanilla beans buyer or trader to export to US.I have grade A vanilla beans( tahitians and planifolia)from Papua. how do I get in touch with buyers.
    Please email to get in touch for further info.

    Regards.

  2. Im interested to become vanilla exporter to any companies that want to import vanilla from Papua New Guinea..

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