By Cristina Copersino
Consumers have a reason to be wary of large supermarket honey suppliers. This past February the Department of Justice announced it was bringing charges against two large U.S. honey processors, Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms, Inc., for taking part in a widespread scam by importing honey from China in violation of United States tariff laws. It appears this is only the tip of the iceberg. By some estimates more than a third of the honey sold in the United States has been imported from China, although much of it is first transferred to India or other countries in order to hide the country of origin.
Why is this a problem? In 2001 the U.S. Commerce Department implemented anti-dumping duties on honey imported from China to discourage Chinese honey suppliers from flooding U.S. markets with adulterated honey products at below fair-market-value. Such a flood of inferior products has the effect of forcing independent U.S. beekeepers and domestic suppliers out of business. To escape the anti-dumping tariff, companies like Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms, Inc. purchase honey that has been transported from China to another country before it is imported into the U.S., thereby cheating the government out of millions of dollars in duties.
Around the time the Commerce Department imposed these anti-dumping duties, foulbrood disease, a devastating bacterial epidemic, was killing off millions of bees in Chinese hives, and beekeepers treated the disease with several animal antibiotics including one called chloramphenicol. The FDA has since banned the presence of chloramphenicol in food. According to Food Safety News, the drug is potentially carcinogenic and may cause DNA damage in children. When testing honey imported from China and India (a common shipping point of Chinese honey into the U.S.), health authorities discovered chloramphenicol as well as other animal antibiotics and lead. The presence of lead in honey is often a result of beekeepers’ use of unlined, lead-soldered drums to store honey.
Sometimes, honey imported from China isn’t actually honey at all. It is all too common for honey to be “cut” with cheaper ingredients such as sugar water, corn syrup, or thickened chemical sweeteners and then sold in U.S. markets, competing with authentic and healthful local honey produced by domestic beekeepers. Health risks aside, this pseudo-honey does not have anywhere near the depth of flavor that real honey has, but it is so cheap to produce that the low price tag might understandably win over some consumers.
So, what is the solution? How do we stop the flood of these adulterated food products into the stream of U.S. commerce? While there are laws in place that make it illegal to sell adulterated honey, there seems to be a disconnect between the law as it is written and what the FDA has actually found feasible to enforce. It may not be practical to expect the FDA to perform extensive tests on every shipment of honey that comes into the U.S., but surely regulation has to come from somewhere, and the FDA is indeed making some strides in its enforcement of food safety laws as they relate to honey. By partnering with the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, the FDA’s efforts have led to the prosecution of Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms, Inc. as well as individuals involved in honey laundering scams.
Still, there is certainly a role for private industry-wide regulation to fill any void in oversight left by the FDA: honey importers can show their commitment to selling unadulterated products by participating in a supply chain audit by an independent auditor in the field of corporate social responsibility. Organizations such as True Source Honey have created a certification program which allows honey importers and packers to demonstrate their compliance with food safety regulations through an independent third party audit.
Finally, support your local beekeepers! Consumers can sidestep the issues associated with imported honey altogether by purchasing honey from local beekeepers who tend to uphold high standards of transparency and accountability when communicating the source of their honey. Local apiaries may even allow site visits so that consumers can observe the process by which their honey is made. By purchasing honey from local beekeepers, you also get to support smaller honey producers which may have trouble competing with larger companies that sell adulterated honey below fair market value. In addition, the quality of our fresh, local produce depends on honeybee pollination, so supporting local beekeepers translates to sustaining our local agricultural system as a whole. “Beekeepers are essential to the survival of the honeybee in these desperate times,” says Marina Marchese, beekeeper and President of Red Bee Honey, located in Weston, CT. “They are tending and nurturing nature’s finest pollinators and are responsible for bringing to market the fresh produce we enjoy eating every day.” Full disclosure: I have worked at Red Bee Apiary with Marina Marchese.
Local honey can be found at your area farmer’s market. Or if you would like additional assistance in finding local beekeepers, try visiting the website for Bee Culture Magazine, where you’ll find a list of North American beekeeping associations organized by state. These local associations are tremendous resources for anyone looking to learn more about where their honey comes from.
Cristina Copersino is an attorney and a food & design aficionado with a love of policy innovations and sustainable businesses. She lives in Westport, CT.