Honey Laundering

In late December 2008 there were numerous articles appearing in newspapers around the county describing a “honey laundering” scam. As I mentioned in the previous article, honey traced to China has been found to contain antibiotics, pesticides and diluted with sugar water or corn syrup. In an effort to circumvent inspections, tariffs and import fees on the Chinese honey the honey is imported to another country that is not as closely scrutinized and then re-label with that country listed as the source of the honey rather than listing its true source as being China. Health officials say that unless something is done, the problem could result in a repeat of the tainted baby milk and pet food scandals of 2008 – but this time with honey.

On January 1, 2009 it was reported that drums of honey labeled “Polish Light Amber Honey” were imported into the US from Australia. The honey actually originated in China. As a result honey now imported from Australia is on a list of 13 countries whose honey is supposed to be carefully checked on entry to the US. The Melbourne operators have been charged and fined $489,000 for importing and rebadging 125 containers holding 1.7 million liters of Chinese honey sold into the US. It was reported in Bee Culture Magazine that the life of a senior figure in the Australia honey industry was threatened when he tried to expose the scam of importing the Chinese honey, rebadging it and then selling it in the US. In fact the brakes on his car mysteriously failed a few weeks after the threat with his wife and children in the car. The Seattle Post Intelligencer conducted a five month investigation into “honey laundering” and has written a detailed series of articles “Following the Honey Trail” for those who wish to learn more.

The articles report further that The National Honey Board that has close ties to the United States Department of Agriculture may be part of the problem. The Board consists of many large producers, packers and distributors who claim that it is not their responsibility to police the honey that their members buy and sell. In some instances tainted honey is found, but rather than informing the authorities, it is just returned to the broker from who they bought it from, only to be resold to another packer who did not check as thoroughly or did not care.

Do You know Where Your Honey Comes From and How Safe It Is?

As a serious hobbyist beekeeper who sells his honey at the local farmers market, I pride myself in producing a deliciously healthful, quality product that is enjoyed by my friends, family and customers. Everyone constantly expresses amazement at the diverse, intense flavors of the honey that they have never experienced before and a growing number of them are seeking locally produced, raw, Wildflower honey for relief of their allergies. I am absolutely appalled by recent reports from the news media and honeybee periodicals warning of tainted honey and “Honey laundering”. The general public and most consumers are uneducated as to what is happening.

The demand for honey in the United States is growing and far outstrips the supply of what can be produced here in part due to declining honeybee numbers, and as a result, two thirds of our honey is imported into the US. This mirrors what is happening to the US food supply as a whole. In fiscal year 2007, approximately 60 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood consumed in the US was imported. Approximately 239 million pounds of honey was imported from a number of countries – but mainly from Argentina, China, Canada and Vietnam. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that beginning back in 2002 the US Customs Service began testing illegal transshipped Chinese honey and found it was contaminated with Chloramphenicol, which is an unapproved food additive and an antibiotic of last resort used to treat humans when no other options are available. For obvious reasons it is an illegal to use in human food products or animal feed here in the US. In 2006 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) discovered honey from China adulterated with Ciprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin. You may remember that “cipro” was the drug that was used to treat the victims of the anthrax attacks from a few years ago. There have also been reports of finding pesticides in honey from China, as well honey diluted with sugar water or corn syrup.

So how did the antibiotics show up in their honey? In 1997 the Chinese had a widespread bacterial infection of their honeybees that nearly wiped out their bee hives and they used these antibiotic substances that are banned here in the US to treat their bees. These chemicals are still showing up in their honey imported into the US. As a result, there have been elaborate schemes devised to circumvent the health and safety checks, import fees and tariffs imposed by the US on Chinese food products.

More on “Honey Laundering” in the next article.