TSA defends cupcake confiscation

('Shoop-Illustration: Xeni Jardin)

On the TSA blog, a defense of the recent confiscation of a cupcake at Las Vegas International airport over concerns the tasty morsel was a terrorist threat. Cory blogged about the incident on Boing Boing, and pointed to a parody song about it here. The internet loves cupcakes and hates the TSA, so predictably, this one went very viral.

The federal agency's explanation for the incident focuses on the fact that the traveler's cupcake was transported in a jar:

I wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill cupcake. If you’re not familiar with it, we have a policy directly related to the UK liquid bomb plot of 2006 called 3-1-1 that limits the amount of liquids, gels and aerosols you can bring in your carry-on luggage. Icing falls under the “gel” category. As you can see from the picture, unlike a thin layer of icing that resides on the top of most cupcakes, this cupcake had a thick layer of icing inside a jar.

In general, cakes and pies are allowed in carry-on luggage, however, the officer in this case used their discretion on whether or not to allow the newfangled modern take on a cupcake per 3-1-1 guidelines. They chose not to let it go.

Read the rest here. It all makes perfect sense now.

Update: Rebecca Hains, the woman whose cupcake-in-a-jar is the tasty center of this international terror emergency, is not impressed with the agency's response. She tells Boing Boing, "The TSA is stooping to misrepresenting the facts about my cupcake in their blog post! TSA response to losing face: misstatements."


    1. I’m not so sure I should file my patent application for a cupcake that has an electronic countdown timer on it and two electrodes wired to it. You know, so you can set a time to say, 10 minutes into the future when you want the cupcake warmed up automatically.

  1. So, did the TSA evacuate the area and send in a bomb disposal squad to destroy the potentially deadly gel? 

    If not, then wasn’t passenger safety compromised?

  2. Ah, the soon-to-be well known “Cupcake Defense.”

    “the newfangled modern take on a cupcake”

    As if no one has ever put food in a jar before.  It’s unheard of!

    1. I’d never heard of a cupcake in a jar until this story.  Maybe I don’t shop in the right twee/hipster places though….

      1. It’s actually not a hipster thing. It’s more of a “cupcakes are mere delivery vectors for frosting” thing. The point of it being in a jar is OM NOM NOM MOAR FROSTING OM NOM NOM.

        1. I just think it’s funny that somebody just expects any average working class TSA person to be up on foodie/crafter/maker trends.

          “It’s as if nobody has ever had duckfat popcorn, yeesh”

          I’m sure the cupcake was likely delicious though.

          1. Oh, the agent knew what it was! It had a label from the bakery and everything.

            He just made a poor decision. And now the TSA is defending its agents’ rights to make poor decisions… which is itself a poor decision. Ouch, my head hurts!

          2. Citizens are outraged:  “How could that dumb TSA worker let that jar full of chemicals through!?”

            “Well it had a sticker on it that said bacon infused simple syrup.”  “There was a sticker, a sticker!”.

          3. After brief consideration I agree with you.

            We Americans really suck at eating decently; how could we ever expect an average citizen to identify food?

  3. So their defense comes down to “it was at the discretion of the officer, so don’t blame us”.  That’s the kind of consistency we’re looking for!

    1. But is the TSA’s consistency a gel-like consistency?? Because if not, then apparently we can trust them.

    2. So their defense comes down to “it was at the discretion of the officer, so don’t blame us”.

      Governments learned the lesson of Nuremberg, only they learned the wrong lesson.
      Employee:  I was just following orders.
      Supervisors:  We gave our employees discretion.

  4. Thankfully, the TSA has never attended high school chemistry, or they would be forced to ban air travel all together. There are plenty of airborne toxins that fit in a handy 3oz canister.

    1. That’s a really good point.

      Personally, I’m just waiting for the day The Terrorists figure out they can make their farts deadly by putting anthrax up their ass.

    2. I think anyone who knew anything about chemistry wouldn’t want to work next to a giant plastic barrel where all the disallowed liquids are thrown in together for disposal. 

  5. Wait – the TSA has a blog???  And they’ve assigned their blogger to rationalize the un-rationalizable?  Because let’s face it – it’s irrational to stop a “cupcake in a jar” as a potential bomb threat if you’re going to allow an apple pie as a carry on.  Which the blogger says is the policy.  Cupcake in a jar is odd and is going to call attention to the carrier.  A Hostess fruit pie is not odd and has zero potential of raising alarms.  Which gel-based carry-on is more likely to actually be part of a bomb plot? 

    And if you REALLY think that something might be a bomb, shouldn’t you get someone to examine it instead of tossing it into the trash?  A terrorist who can blow up a TSA checkpoint in an airport would score almost as big a coup as one who actually got a bomb onto a plane (and yet none have even seemed to have tried – which should tell us something about the security theater that we’re living under right there).

    The first rule of holes is that when you find yourself in a hole STOP DIGGING.  By putting up this defense TSA shows that they don’t even know the first rule of holes.  What kind of security theater is this?

  6. We all just become giant douches when anything relating to airline travel enters conversation. Government, TSA officers, passengers; it’s all the same annoying whining just a different song. Even the parts that make sense get drowned out by perspective.

    1. I think we become giant douches when we give up and internalize the messages we used to stand up against.

    1. They probably don’t mention it because you’re allowed to bring breakable glass jars onto planes.

      Not if they contain liquid, of course.  The liquid is prohibited.  But empty jars?  No problem at all.

      The whole thing is awesomely ridiculous.  Reading through the TSA list of prohibited materials makes me wonder how Andy Kauffman managed to trick the TSA into hiring him after he faked his death…

  7. “however, the officer in this case used their discretion”

    Dear TSA, we already understood this. The point is that the discretion was stupidly applied and perhaps more “discretion” than these “officers” are prepared for.

    1. Here at the TSA, we defend our agents’ rights to make poor decisions while depriving people of their rights!

  8. The “liquid gel” bomber was not thwarted by TSA. Neither was the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, or the 9/11 attackers. So far, only OTHER PASSENGERS have worked to thwart terrorists on airplanes. What’s the TSA for, again?

  9. I actually found their response pretty reasonable.  I mean you can argue the ridiculousness of their policies in general, but from those pictures, confiscating the jar is in line with all their other policies.  The story is only getting popular because it was a cupcake.  

    If it was any food that looked exactly like that container, you would know “Oh right, can’t bring liquids or gels in containers like that, better not put it on my carry-on.”

    1. I agree as well.  I’m not even sure what cupcake in a jar is suppose to be.  I mean it might as well be a jar of icing and I would take a good guess that’s not making it through security.

      Do I think the rules are stupid, yes.  But given the container and what’s inside, then I think the current rules were properly applied.

    2. There was a chain of reasoning that was not reasonable. The “gel-like icing” did not exceed 3 ozs. The total container did. And inside of the container there was a gel-like icing. So, the officer reasoned, any container exceeding 3 ozs. that also contains a gel-like substance cannot be taken on an airplane. That chain of reasoning was “above and beyond” what was called for, or what was applied at other airports.

      1. Nah, that’s not how they state that rule. They say you can’t bring liquids in a container that is designed to contain more than 3 oz, i.e. an almost empty 4 oz tube of toothpaste is taboo. Not sure it makes a whole lot of sense but that’s not what’s being discussed here.

        (Also, how could you possibly tell how much gel-like watchamacallit is behind that big-ass label?)

      2. But is the TSA agent supposed to empty the container and measure the precise amount of gel-like icing in there? The whole point of not allowing things on-board is because they can’t trust labelling to say “CONTAINS 3 oz GELIGNITE” – especially on an easily reusable container like a jar.
        I think the major issue is, as you say, it was above what was applied at other airports. The application, let alone the inconsistency, of agent discretion is a major weakness in the whole argument that TSA is anything but pants-on-head security theatre.

    3. We make fun of the cupcake for its utter absurdity.  The larger point is and always has been about the TSA’s policies, not whether or not cupcakes meet some stupid rule or another.

      It is the policy that is stupid.  Is is a stupid policy because it is am ineffective cowards policy.  Worrying about something that ranks  on the “shit that will kill you” scale between shark attacks and lightening strikes, by throwing a few hundred billion dollars at the problem and molesting every person the TSA can get their grubby little fingers on is either stupid and/or cowardly. 

      We don’t freak the fuck out and set up a new agency over the scourge of lightening strikes.  We take reasonable precautions that are proportional to the risks (a few cheap lightening rods here and there, don’t play gold during a lightening storm), carry on, and don’t give it a second though.  Sure, we are sad if someone we loves gets struck by lightening, but we don’t then go on a rampage demanding that the government drop a few billion dollars on the terrible scourge of lightening strike related deaths.

      After 9/11, we realize that there was a minor threat.  Fucking MINOR.  Your fat diabetic American ass is going to die of heart disease or cancer, not the terrorist, get over it.  McDonalds will be your killer, not the crotch bomber.  If you are really lucky, you might die of something exciting, like a car accident or a self inflicted gun shot wound.  Realizing that there was a MINOR threat in airplane security, we took two reasonable precautions.  First, we reinforced the cockpit door.  Second, we told passengers (or more accurately, passengers realized) that if they get hijacked, they need to beat the shit out of whoever is doing the hijacking.  Those two things have proven to be 100% effective against the trivial threat that is mid-air terrorism.   

      Anyone who is still afraid to fly is a fucking coward due to the scary terrorist is a fucking coward.  Instead of everyone else giving up their civil liberties, the cowards need to stop flying.

      The cupcake incident just underlines with its extreme absurdity the delusional state of airline security that we are in.  We are taking citizens cupcakes (after we prOn scan them) because some coward bureaucrat has been mandated by elected officials  to piss themselves it terror at the thought that shark attacks might barely edge out airline terrorism on the top 1000 ways amazingly unlikely ways to die.  All the while ignoring the few hundred thousand Americans that die each year by shoving shit food into their diabetic maws.

    4. It saddens me that everyone has rolled-over and accepted that the liquid rule is either inevitable or just too much bother to protest any more.  Just like they accepted the shoe rule.  And the Search rule.  And the scan rule.

      And on and on and on.

  10. “…thin layer of icing that resides on the top of most cupcakes…”

    Thin layer?  What kind of cupcakes is he used to eating?  My cupcakes must always have a nicely thick layer of icing on the top, or I won’t eat them.

  11. TSA, yes, we know that you “used discretion”. The problem here is that everyone knows that “officer discretion” is arbitrary, vague, and laughable, and makes you look very silly every single day to everyone in the world who flies a plane.

    Last year I flew out of LAX with a jar of chutney in my bag. The TSA officer told me it wasn’t allowed, since it was a ‘gel’. I told him it was a condiment. He looked confused, shrugged, and let me take it with me. Can airplane bombers take explosives on board by telling TSA they’re condiments?

  12. I think I would have had more respect for them if they had confiscated it because she didn’t bring enough for the whole plane.

  13. Okay, I hate stupid TSA policies just as much as the next guy, but where’s the contradiction here? So there’s an arbitrary rule instituted from above that gels and liquids over 3 oz aren’t allowed, TSA drone sees pretty moist wobbly thing in glass and decides it may be against their rules (BTW, the TSA blog just says that in cases like this they “can’t be exactly sure of what something is,” which is of course true, because some eeevil terrorist could potentially have replaced said gel-like substance with something dangerous; they don’t say the drone in question didn’t know it was supposed to be cupcake).

    Honestly, where’s the “misrepresentation” here that the TSA “stoop[ed] to”? That TSA drone has just as bad a time as you navigating the BS rules he’s employed to enforce and regurgitated some talking points they made him remember.

    1. Completely agreed. It’s a silly rule, and makes them look silly, but as long as the rule’s in place, they did their job exactly as they should’ve done and didn’t lie or misrepresent anything.

    2. The misrepresentation is that in my original conversation with the agent, he never once indicated he believed there was more than 3 ounces of frosting in the jar. And believe me, we had quite a lengthy conversation about it!

      In essence, they’re delivering a line that they think people will agree with–as in: “Oh, of COURSE she should have known about the 3 / 1 / 1 rule.”

      But that wasn’t why the TSA agent made his decision.

      1. Well, if we’re gonna be that nit-picky, their blog doesn’t actually say that he thought that there was more than 3 oz of icing in that jar. Their warped rules apply to the size of the _container_ that holds the offending substance, not how much of it is in there.

        Yeah, pretty stupid, but hey, that chap didn’t dream that stuff up himself.

        Edit: that previous BB post said as much, i.e. that he objected to the size of the jar (“‘clearly contains more than 3 ounces of total contents,’ he said”). The TSA even links to their 3-1-1 rule page (which states exactly that), as they do whenever something like this comes up.

        I can’t express how stupid I think this rule is, but you can’t say they’re secretive about it.

        1. I guess my point is this: The agent made it clear that the frosting wouldn’t have been a “gel” if the cupcake weren’t in a container at all. Why is a cupcake in a box okay but a cupcake in a jar not?

          Still, it’s odd for the TSA to invoke the 3 / 1 / 1 rule on their blog when that was CLEARLY not the agent’s original concern. 

          Once I understood the frosting to be a “gel” according his analysis, I offered to scoop the cupcake out of the jar and into a plastic bag. He said no, because it contains more than 3 ounces of total contents. So the 3 / 1 / 1 policy was not his original grounds for confiscation.

          This became clearer when I offered politely to separate the icing from the cake, and he still declined–because his concern wasn’t about the quantity. It was the “substance.”

          1. I fully agree with you.

            But (and no offense intended): a normal cupcake doesn’t look like a moist pudding-like substance (as does this particular brand of in-jar “cupcake”, regardless of whether it actually is). The texture is quite different, or you couldn’t eat it with a spoon. Really, they are different things. It was a judgment call and they didn’t violate their own stupid rules, your goalpost-shifting notwithstanding.

            By analogy, they won’t let you bring a partly filled 4-oz toothpaste tube or its contents even if you offer to squeeze every last bit out. Them’s the supremely idiotic breaks in present-day air travel. (Thankfully the EU has stated its intent to opt out of the liquid-banning scheme pretty soon. We’ll see.)

            Edit: just wanted to say that the TSA’s Blogger Bob doesn’t do bad job really. Considering that he has to defend unpopular arbitrary rules and that he deals with all kinds of justified and unjustified rage spewed at him, I’m impressed by how civil and courteous he is. There’s a TSA employee that really earns his living.

  14. I personally believe TSA personnel treat their job like a shopping spree – if they want what you are traveling with, they will take from you. I can see them gathering in the break room and fighting over our stuff. That expensive lip gloss you got for your birthday? The custom made watch your wife gave your for Christmas? The sandwich you can only get from that deli in Brooklyn? 

    It’s the same power and corruption seen in Customs Officials at the US -Mexico border cept they just take your tequila. 

    Any day now, they will take a high end electronic device – It’s the screener’s son’s graduation and he’s getting your iPad.

  15. Am I the only one who thinks this is all crying over spilt milk. This all seems very melodramatic and theatrical to me. Its just a cupcake…   

    1. Sure, it’s just a cupcake … this time.
      First a cupcake, then a cruller, soon all baked goods will be banned – with or without gluten.
      They can have my baguette when they pry it from my cold, dead hands!

    2. First they came for our water bottles, and I didn’t speak out because, well, they were just water bottles. Then they groped and manhandled us, and I didn’t speak out because these were supposedly necessary security measures. Then they came for my cupcake, dammit, and there was no better person to speak out than me!

  16. The sad thing here is that people are mad at the TSA for competence. The 3-1-1 rule on liquids doesn’t help anyone, and has inconvenienced a lot of people. But at the same time, this TSA applied the (pointless) rule correctly and fairly. Someone came through with a large container of unidentifiable liquid/gel, and she had to throw it away, just like everyon else who brought soda, water, breast milk*, holy water, liquor, shampoo, or  personal lubricant* before her. (*Some items theoretically allowed in other sizes, though in my experience few TSA agents seem to be aware of the exceptions. Personal lubricant is the only one embarrassing enough to make a TSA agent stop and flag down a supervisor to confirm the rules.)

    We’re wasting perfectly good outrage on the wrong  thing. We’re complaining about a specific agent doing his job correctly, rather than an entire agency more making bad rules.

  17. “What the two plots above and intelligence gathered from all over the world tells us is that unless Wile E. Coyote is involved, the days of the three sticks of dynamite with a giant alarm clock strapped to them are long gone. Terrorists have moved to novel explosives disguised as common, everyday items.  Our officers are regularly briefed and trained by TSA explosives specialists on how just about any common appliance, toy or doohickey can be turned into a dangerous explosive.”So:1) if something looks unlike a bomb, it might still be a bomb, so TSA may confiscate it.2) If something looks like a bomb, I assume TSA would confiscate it (since it might actually be a bomb).Therefore, don’t expect to carry on ANYTHING, unless you can demonstrate in seconds that it could not POSSIBLY be a bomb or weapon.

  18. Ok I get it, it’s a cupcake, but overall I don’t think her rights were violated. I’ve had one of these cupcakes and the bottom third of the jar was filled with jelly. It was delicious, but also probably cheap to make and it’s logical that the TSA would find this new baking trend suspicious.

    There are cases of people who’s rights are violated by the TSA, can we let the cupcake go and talk about those instead?

      1. Its one of their banned substances. I’m not saying the ban is effectual and I don’t agree with it at all. But, like commenters above have pointed out, they just seem to be maintaining their actual legible policies on this one.

  19. It’s all fun and games until pastry chefs start getting water-boarded and bakers get sent to Gitmo.

    1. Yes, the one where if everything went just right, the terrorist might have incapacitated themselves. In the bathroom. 

  20. on top of a three-year recession
    a decade of war and regression
    this nonsense over a cupcake
    promotes serotonin reuptake
    contributing to Great Depression

  21. Ignoring systematic corruption in a system guarantees that it will become vulnerable to bribery (agents who steal cupcakes with no penalty will graduate to greater abuses, and any malicious actor will be well aware of and ready to exploit that fact. The system is probably already porous to drugs, explosives and weapons will be next).

  22. Officer discretion isn’t always a bad thing. 
    The TSA officer, holding up a device for the consumption of hemp flowers he had found in a pile of trinkets, knickknacks and junk on the bottom of my trunk, looked at me.  I shrugged.  As his supervisor walked up to him, asking if there was an issue, he nonchalantly dropped it and searched some more, indicating everything was just fine. 
    Now of course he isn’t a police officer, but he could have been an ass, and wasn’t. 
    I have nothing but love for that particular goon. 

  23. This story was very different when it was originally presented as a cute little “normal cupcake” (see Illustration #1) that was snatched out of her hands by a mean TSA agent. Grr, mean TSA!

    Now it turns out it was a glass jar full of frosting (see Illustration #2). That’s not so cute, and now I’m much more sympathetic to the TSA agent. Now she sounds like a jerk for giving the agent this much grief.

    Yes, TSA policy is stupid and agents are on a power trip. We already know this, so don’t try to take glass jars full of frosting onto planes.

  24. Comment writer “squinko” over at Consumerist dubbed this a

    Molotov Cupcake

    I hope that sticks, especially when you combine it with terrorist treat.

    What do terrorists have for dessert?

  25. The agent made a grey area decision and riled up the internets, but we should be thanking him. It should have been obvious that filling a jar with frosting and try to pass it off as a  “cupcake” was unacceptable. But, as a consequence, we now all know that open-air cake-bottom frosting-top cupcakes can fly the friendly skies with a minimum amount of scrutiny.

    Secondly, many of y’all are overlooking that the TSA’s response was clever, informative and entertaining. The tone of the writing perfectly fit the ridiculousness of the outrage.

    I hope there is an award for “best writing produced in an official capacity for a federal bureaucratic office,” because Bob Burns deserves it.

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