He said his company uses “extreme care” including pollen analysis when purchasing foreign honey, especially from countries like India, Vietnam and others that have or have had “business arrangements” with Chinese honey producers.

Chinese honey has long had a poor reputation in theU.S., where – in 2001 – the Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff import tariffs or taxes to stop the Chinese from flooding the marketplace with dirt-cheap, heavily subsidized honey, which was forcing American beekeepers out of business.

To avoid the dumping tariffs, the Chinese quickly began transshipping

honey to several other countries, then laundering it by switching the color of the shipping drums, the documents and labels to indicate a bogus but tariff-free country of origin, reports Schneider.

MostU.S.honey buyers knew about the Chinese actions, but because of the sudden availability of lower cost honey, they didn’t raise any alarm.

“The FDA — either because of lack of interest or resources — devoted little effort to inspecting imported honey,” writes Schneider. “Nevertheless, the agency had occasionally either been told of, or had stumbled upon, Chinese honey contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics which are dangerous, even fatal, to a very small percentage of the population.”

In one instance 10 years ago, contaminated Chinese honey was shipped toCanadaand then on to a warehouse inHoustonwhere it was sold to several major suppliers.

Eventually, some honey packers became worried about what they were pumping into the plastic bears and jars they were selling. They began using in-house or private labs to test for honey diluted with inexpensive high fructose corn syrup or 13 other illegal sweeteners or for the presence of illegal antibiotics. But even the most sophisticated of these tests could not pinpoint the geographic source of the honey.

 Food scientists and honey specialists say pollen is the only foolproof fingerprint to a honey’s source.

U.S. Customs and Justice Department investigators told Schneider that wheneverU.S.food safety or criminal experts verify a method to identify potentially illegal honey — such as analyzing the pollen — the laundering operators find a way to thwart it.

The solution: buy from local beekeepers.

Nancy Gentry owns the small Cross Creek Honey Company inInterlachen,Fla., and she isn’t worried about the quality of the honey she sells.

“I harvest my own honey. We put the frames in an extractor, spin it out, strain it, and it goes into a jar. It’s honey the way bees intended,” Gentry said.

But the negative stories on the discovery of tainted and bogus honey raised her fears for the public’s perception of honey.

Honey samples

“She spent months of studying what the rest of the world was doing to protect consumers from tainted honey and questioning beekeepers and industry on what was needed here,” writes Schneider. “Gentry became the leading force in crafting language forFloridato develop the nation’s first standard for identification for honey.”

In July 2009,Floridaadopted the standard and placed its Division of Food Safety in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in charge of enforcing it.  It’s since been followed by California, Wisconsin and North Carolina and is somewhere in the state legislative or regulatory maze in Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Kansas, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and others.

North CarolinaStateUniversitybee expert John Ambrose’s battle for a national definition goes back 36 years, reports Schneider. “He said the issue is of great importance toNorth Carolinabecause it has more beekeepers than any other state in the country.

“He and others tried to convince FDA that a single national standard for honey to help prevent adulterated honey from being sold was needed. The agency promised him it would be on the books within two years.”

“But that never happened,” said Ambrose.

Ambrose, who was co-chair of the team that drafted the state beekeeper association’s honey standards says the language is very simple, “Our standard says that nothing can be added or removed from the honey. So in other words, if somebody removes the pollen, or adds moisture or corn syrup or table sugar, that’s adulteration,” Ambrose told Food Safety News.

But still, he says he’s asked all the time how to ensure that you’re buying quality honey.  “The fact is, unless you’re buying from a beekeeper, you’re at risk,” he advised.

Eric Silva, counsel for the American Honey Producers Association said the standard is a simple but essential tool in ensuring the quality and safety of honey consumed by millions of Americans each year.

“Without it, the FDA and their trade enforcement counterparts are severely limited in their ability to combat the flow of illicit and potentially dangerous honey into this country,” he said Silva.

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