It is like honey in the bank, according to investigators who are tracking Chinese exports of bogus honey to the United States (US). China is the largest producer of honey in the world, but much of China’s honey production is tainted with pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metal contamination. Chinese honey was banned from the European Market by the EU in 2002. in 2001, The US imposed a 300 percent tariff on Chinese honey to protect American beekeepers from unfair competition from China, but Chinese honey is still finding its way onto the American market.
Honey is big business in America, with more than 400 million pounds of the sweet stuff being consumed here each year, including 200 million pounds that goes into the production of processed foods. Only 48 percent of that honey is American made. The other 52 percent comes from 41 countries around the world. That makes the American honey market a tempting target for predators bent on selling contaminated or adulterated honey to American consumers. One such operation netted the perpetrators more than $80 million from selling Chinese honey to unsuspecting US businesses before they were shut down by agents from the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security. Many such smuggling operations go undetected due to manpower issues.
American companies are not always innocent bystanders. Some very well-known honey packers are knowingly purchasing Chinese honey from third country middle men and reselling it on the American market. Industry sources indicate that as much as one-third of all the honey sold in the US may actually be illegally imported Chinese production.
Honey is a unique because it is the only food product that does not go bad. It can be left out in a closed container, refrigerated, or frozen, but it never sours or ferments. Because of its reputation as a healthy sweetener, it is often used to replace regular sugar or sugar substitutes, and parents who would never give their children regular sugar have no qualms about giving them honey, because they believe it is a safe, natural product. Industry sources claim that may not be true all the time.
In addition to the contamination and adulteration issues, the Chinese product is also missing a vital ingredient that gives honey one of its most beneficial characteristics: bee pollen. Pollen is the powdery stuff that comes off when the stamen of a flower is touched. The pollen is inadvertently collected by worker bees during the process of collecting nectar from the flowers. Pollen is also the stuff that makes allergy sufferers miserable. One of the traditional remedies for pollen allergies is to feed allergy patients raw, local honey containing pollen from the same area. This is thought to desensitize allergic patients to the allergens.
The pollen is also what makes some honey cloudy. When the honey is a clear amber color, the chances are that the pollen has been removed. Some honey packers filter their product to make it look more attractive, and to prevent the honey from crystallizing when refrigerated. Others leave the pollen in the honey because some consumers like the texture of crystallized honey. Chinese honey makers process their honey to remove the pollen but not for aesthetic reasons. They remove the pollen because pollen can be used to identify the source of the honey.
Pollen: Honey’s Sweet Fingerprints
There are more than 350,000 different plant species, each of which produces a unique pollen type and it turns out that it is relatively easy to identify the different pollens because all of the useful ones have been cataloged by melissopalynologist, scientists who study pollen in honey. By identifying the pollen in a given sample, scientists can pinpoint where that honey came. from.
Pollen-free honey is a problem for food scientists because, without the pollen, it is impossible to determine where the honey came from and what kinds of nectar went into that batch of honey. That is important to consumers because high quality honey now sells for more than $50 per pound in boutique food stores. Removing the pollen enables packers to sell cheap imported honey at a premium price. It also enables Chinese honey makers to smuggle their honey into the US.
A recent survey by Texas A&M researchers found that as much as 75 percent of the samples tested had been laundered to remove the pollen. This makes it virtually impossible for scientists to determine the origin of specific batches of honey, preventing regulators from tracking down and interdict honey smuggling operations.
More importantly, from a scientific point of view, it is important to know where honey comes from because different countries have different standards regulating pesticide use and the treatment of hives with antibiotics. Knowing the country of origin allows legitimate importers to test honey batches to ensure that they are not adulterated with chemicals, but that is very difficult to do if the testers don’t know which chemicals to test for.
Beekeeping is a very low margin, high risk industry. Commercial beekeepers earn most of their revenue from selling honey, not from pollination services. In order to continue providing pollination services, they have to be able to sell their honey at competitive prices without being undercut by cheap foreign honey. The continuing influx of the cheap Chinese product is undermining the financial viability of US beekeeping operations by forcing down the wholesale price of honey below the levels that American beekeepers need to operate.
“If beekeeping becomes a money-losing business in the U.S., there will soon be fewer hives and fewer bees,” according to Vaughn Bryant, a Texas A&M anthropologist, who is also a melissopalynologist. “Without them…many of our food crops would not get pollinated. The result might be oranges or apples costing $5 each because so few would be produced without bees to pollinate the flowers.”
In the meantime, it is honey in the bank as China continues to export bogus honey to the U.S. amassing huge profits for some entrepreneurs, and jail time for others.
By Alan M. Milner