Is that a Pine Nut?

I watch competitive cooking the way a stereotypical American male might watch baseball. I don't care if it is Top Chef or Chopped at the high end or the dreck that is Cupcake Wars and The Great American Food Truck Race. I don't watch kids compete, that's where I draw the line. I also like to eat. As a result, I am familiar with a lot of strange food items.

Pine nuts are not all that odd. I recently learned a lot more about pine nuts when I read Specialty Commodities Inc. v. United States, which involves the tariff classification of the seed of the Korean pine nut, Pinus koraiensis.

Customs and Border Protection classified these seeds as "Other nuts, fresh or dried, whether or not shelled or peeled: Other: Other: Shelled: Other" in HTSUS item 0802.90.97. The plaintiff believes they are best classified in 0802.90.25 as "Pignolia: Shelled." Clearly, the question is whether the seed of the Koreas pine, from China, is a "Pignolia" for purposes of tariff classification. Note that both classifications are in subheading 0802.90. This question is all about the last two digits.

While it may seem that a pine nut is a pine nut, that is not the case. The Explanatory Notes to the Harmonized System, which are not binding on U.S. Customs and Border Protection but are authoritative interpretations of the international parts of the tariff, state that the nuts of Heading 0802 include "pignolia nuts (seeds of the Pinus pinea)." It turns out that Pinus pinea is the Italian Stone Pine, which is native to Europe, north Africa and the Mediterranean, which would exclude both China and Korea and is in contrast to the Pinus koraiensis.

Seeds of Pinus koraiensis via Wikipedia

What this comes down to is whether the seeds of the Pinus koraiensis are within the common and commercial meaning of "pignola nuts," giving due weight to the Explanatory Notes additional notation of "Pinus pinea."

This case is a good read for anyone interested in learning how customs lawyers muster lexicographical evidence of common and commercial meaning. Plaintiff put forward a number of definitions broad enough to encompass edible pine nuts of any source. These were taken from dictionaries, trade publications, government sources, and various websites. The government put forward a similar collection of more restrictive definitions taken from other sources and challenged the plaintiff's interpretation of some of its sources. None of this competing reference material was sufficient to resolve the matter.

The plaintiff also pointed to prior CBP rulings as evidence that Customs has established the meaning of "pignolia." These rulings, however, relate to infused oils and do not directly address the classification of the pine seeds.

The Court next looked to the historical treatment of pine seeds in U.S. tariff acts. This is something we don't often see. Prior tariffs are only relevant today when the language is similar to the current law, which is often the case when an item is called out by name (or eo nomine). In this case, the Court looked at the 1921 Summaries of Trade and Tariff Information and the Tariff Act of 1922. The government, however, pointed out that neither the subsequent Tariff Act of 1930 nor the 1946 revision use the word "pignolia." This is meaningful because during that time, all pine nuts appear to have been classified as "other" and the seeds of Pinus pinea only subsequently specified as pignolia. Furthermore, a 1968 tariff report indicates that the pignolia nut is gathered in Italy, Portugal and Spain, presumably excluding similar products from China and Korea.

That took the Court back to where we started: the Explanatory Notes. In 1986, the Explanatory Notes used the phrase "pignolia nuts (Seeds of the Pinus pinea)." That language remained in subsequent editions.

This does not resolve the issue because there is no disagreement as to the proper heading and subheading (i.e., to sixth digit), which is as far as the Explanatory Notes go. Nevertheless, the Notes clearly limit pignolia to the European variety. The U.S. drafters of the HTSUS presumably knew that and were also aware of the 1968 report. Taken together, that indicates to the Court of International Trade, that these particular pine nuts are not pignolia for classification purposes.

This is the point where I usually find something in the decision to pick at. Initially, my concern was that the Explanatory Notes insert a limitation to pignolia that is not in the HTSUS and should, therefore, be ignored. That would broaden the meaning beyond seeds of Pinus pinea. But, the Court addressed this saying that there was not sufficient evidence of a common and commercial meaning to establish a conflict with the Explanatory Notes. Touché.

Now, I will go home, open my basket, and make dinner from pine nuts, squid ink, elk loin, and a Boston cream pie. If my entre does not cut it, I will be Chopped.


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