Sunday, April 16, 2006

Measure for Measure

It often surprises my colleagues when I say that I find classification to be one of the most interesting areas of customs law. The way I look at it, complex classification is a puzzle. There are very specific rules set out in the General Rules of Interpretation and the Section and Chapter Notes. In my opinion, the Explanatory Notes tend to muck things up, but that is a different story.

The thing about classification is that there can only be one right answer. Even if you get to the point where you are opting for the last classification in numerical order, you are still following the rules. So getting to the right answer is like doing a sudoku puzzle. You need to figure out the possible answers and test them out against the rules. If a Note pops up that conflicts, you have it wrong.

I'm thinking about this because I read in the latest Customs Bulletin (look at page 24), that CBP is modifying some rulings on the classification of steel measuring spoons. It strikes me that measuring spoons should be pretty easy to classify.

Customs had classified measuring spoons in 8215.99.30 as: "Spoons, forks, ladles, skimmers, cake-servers, fish-knives, butter-knives, sugar tongs and similar kitchen or tableware . . . other: spoons and ladles: with stainless steel handles: spoons valued under $0.25 each." The current duty rate for this provision is a surprisingly high 14%.

In the Bulletin Notice, Customs is proposing to reclassify these goods in 7323.99.90 which provides for "Table, kitchen or other household articles and parts thereof, of iron or steel; iron or steel wool; pot scourers and scouring or polishing pads, gloves and the like, of iron or steel: Other: Not coated or plated with precious metal: Other: Other." The rate for this provision is a favorable 3.4%.

I am wondering about what makes a measuring spoon useful. It is not like every other spoon in the house, which may or may not approximate a teaspoon, tablespoon, or some other random quantity. No, I say, a measuring spoon is an instrument for the measurement of volume. It is an apparatus designed to prevent the inadvertent excess of cayenne from doing bodily harm to dinner guests. It is the noble household measuring spoon that permits the proper dosing of the sick with over-the-counter medication. No one reaches for a measuring spoon to stir their morning coffee or eat their cereal. No, spoons of all shapes and sizes are available for those lowly tasks. The measuring spoon, I tell you, deserves more respect than it is receiving from Customs.

Which brings me to my question. Why isn't the measuring spoon classifiable in 9031.80.80 as "Measuring or checking instruments, appliances and machines, not specified or included elsewhere in this chapter . . . Other instruments, appliances and machines: Other . . . ?" This provision not only treats measuring spoons with the degree of respect they deserve, but it also carries the more favorable duty rate of 1.7%. The language of the heading certainly describes measuring spoons which, after all, are for measuring. Also, measuring spoons do not appear to be more specifically described elsewhere. Seems like a slam dunk.

Of course, it is not. One thing I often tell clients is that if Customs or a broker tells you something is classified somewhere, think long and hard before challenging it. There might be a reason. Of course, I make my living challenging classifications and other decision by Customs, so I am not afraid of a fight. But, you need to go into it with your eyes fully open.

The other thing I tell people is that if you reach a classification conclusion without carefully consulting the Notes, you might be in for a bad surprise. That's what might happen with measuring spoons. It turns out that Chapter 90, Note 1(l) says that the Chapter does not cover "Capacity measures, which are to be classified according to their constituent material . . . ."

Hmmm. That makes me wonder. Is "capacity" the same as "volume?" Maybe capacity in this context means the electrical capacitance. Maybe this is harder than it looks.

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