The Honey Laundering Scandal (aka, get to know your local beekeeper)15. June 2018
It is pretty safe to say that my husband and I are about the least brand-conscious consumers you are likely to find. Store brand everything. No name clothing labels. Generic, second-hand dog (hey, wait a minute… ). But one of the items we are dead-set loyal on is our honey. That’s because honey laundering is real and we don’t want that junk in our bodies. And it’s because my husband consumes more honey than Winnie the Pooh, but I digress.
The Origins of Honey Laundering
Once upon a time, America imported a ton of honey from China. They did this because it was cheap. It was less than half the cost that domestic honey producers could produce it for. There was no possible way US beekeepers could compete though. So in 2001 the US government levied a duty of about $1.20/lb on imported Chinese honey. And this fixed… very little. And in a way, it completely backfired. The Chinese started shipping their honey to countries that DIDN’T have a pesky honey-tariff (like India, Malaysia, or Indonesia). In some instances, honey from multiple countries would get mixed together. From there it was re-labeled with the new “Country of Origin.” The global food conglomerate importers knew what was going on… and were fine with it. And thus, “Honey Laundering” was born.
And the honey laundering (aka, transshipping) tradition carries on to this day.
The Problem with Honey Laundering
“What do I care where it originates, as long as it is 100% pure honey?” is what you might say. But the problem (well, ONE of the problems) is that it is NOT pure honey. At all. Part of the laundering process is that it's often cut with other substances. And this is one of the main reasons that it can be produced so inexpensively. Cane, corn or beet sugars, and rice and corn syrup are cheap additives. China’s production method involves harvesting unripe honey. At this early stage, honey is watery with high water contents. The watery honey is then artificially dried and filtered. Adding or removing pollen masks the country of origin since investigators can trace it to a specific region. Rice or corn syrup or other sugars are added to make honey cheaper. It's not illegal to sell a honey "blend", but the product label MUST state it's a blend. Unfortunately, labels often don't reflect these added ingredients. Therefore, the final store product is fraudulent. According to Food Safety News testing, perhaps 76% of the honey on store shelves is FAKE. Most honey tested from big box stores, pharmacies, and fast food joints lacked pollen. Samples from farmers markets, co-ops, and natural stores had the standard amounts of pollen.
Some Chinese honey has even tested positive for antibiotics such as chloramphenicol, which has been linked to cancer. The Chinese use chloramphenicol to treat unhealthy bee colonies. This chemical is not approved for use in honey or any other food in the US. Lead was also found in Indian honey, which would often be mixed with Chinese honey to mask the country of origin. Heavy metals are absorbed and accumulate over time in the body. So this posed an even bigger health threat.
Then there is the “ultrafiltration” process which diminishes the quality of honey. Most all honey goes through a basic filtration process to get rid of debris and bee body parts (eww. thank you for this process, BTW). The good stuff you get out of honey is retained, though. With ultrafiltration, the pollen and its natural antibiotic properties are stripped out. Why do this? Two reasons: 1) honey will stay fluid longer, being less prone to crystallization (i.e., can sit on store shelves longer) and 2) the country of origin becomes untraceable. Once you remove the pollen, you can't identify what flowers were used to create the honey, you see. And BTW, there's absolutely nothing wrong with crystallized honey. Honey doesn't spoil after all. Creamed honey is just as delicious as liquid honey, but Americans seem to prefer liquid honey.
Many consumers buy raw honey for its amazing health benefits, most of which are due to bee pollen. If ultrafiltration removes the healthy pollen and propolis, consumers are left with honey in name alone. Or worse yet, honey with nasty, unhealthy corn syrups. Raw honey has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties. It also has the ability to boost the immune system. Since it contains hydrogen peroxide, it has antibacterial properties and is used for treating wounds and burns. Raw honey is also used for coughs, asthma, hay fever, diarrhea, and stomach ulcers. So by adding unlisted ingredients, a consumer may end up with a product they wouldn’t want in their bodies. So much for trying to be a healthy consumer!
Here’s another issue with adulterated honey that often isn’t brought up. There are people, such as my husband, who have corn intolerances or allergies. My husband cannot eat corn or any corn related product such as corn syrup. We scrutinize ingredient labels for contents that can make him sick. Consumers really do need to know what’s in the product, especially if it's an ingredient that may make them ill. Adding corn syrup to honey without calling it out on the label is unsafe.
And of course another downside of honey laundering is the enormous loss of money from avoiding tariffs. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and anti-dumping tariffs from laundered Chinese honey. Not to mention the financial impact it has on domestic beekeepers trying to keep up. And since bees help pollinate produce and plants, we NEED our local beekeepers.
How to Know if You are Buying REAL Honey
So how can you find real, raw honey when it appears that some on grocery store shelves may have a suspect history? The first step is to do your homework. Look for honey that is “true source certified”. This means that the origin of the honey you are purchasing can be traced back to one source. Take note, food companies often use words like “Pure, Raw, & Organic” as product selling points. These terms aren’t defined in the USDA Honey Labeling Guidelines. While “raw" honey is traditionally unprocessed, unheated, with live enzymes and pollen, “pure” tends to mean there are no additives. And since you can’t track the course of every single honey bee, there’s no way to tell if she’s been feeding on a neonicotinoid-tainted blossom. So labeling honey as “organic” is questionable. Another big clue, and this is the more painful one, is to look at the more expensive honey. This isn’t a guarantee that it's the real deal, but honey production is a time- and labor-intensive process. In short, you get what you pay for, and the real honey isn’t going to cost a couple bucks.
On that note, let’s take a side-trip to the land of the magical Manuka Honey. Manuka is a special honey that is only made from the pollen of the Manuka bush in New Zealand. It has been sought out for thousands of years for medical uses. It's popular medicinally because of its very high concentration of antimicrobial properties. Because of it coming (supposedly) exclusively from one tiny region, the price is usually around $30 a jar. So this made it ripe for its own form of laundering. As an example, in 2014 about 10,000 metric tons of Manuka were distributed to the world market. Unfortunately, New Zealand only produced 1,700 metric tons of the legitimate stuff. Yeah, that math doesn't jive! The NZ government took new steps in 2017 to increase standards. Their goal was to make sure only authentic Manuka was labeled as such. But it is an uphill battle that will not easily be won.
So it boils down to “If you want to know where your food is coming from, grow it yourself”. While this is becoming more popular with bees, as more and more folks are becoming amateur apiarists, not everyone lives where this is a possibility. The next best step is to visit nearby farmers markets and find someone local to buy from. Get to know your local beekeeper! Talk to them. Find out about their farm, their bees, and what their bees are feeding on to make the honey. Most beekeepers are more than willing to share with their customers the ins and outs of the process. Seriously, BEEKS are GEEKS about honey talk. Our honey source is a great little family farm in Williamsport, OH called Honeyrun Farm. They offer a variety of seasonal honeys and products (the Fall Honey is our go-to nectar). We’ve probably bought enough of it over the years to pay off a fair amount of their mortgage. Just kidding. But not really. Did I ever mention the time my husband got stuck in the doorway of Rabbit’s Howse?
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Read More About Honey Laundering:
- Read the original Food Safety New Report that showed that 75% of honey they tested wasn't real honey because the pollen was removed. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/11/tests-show-most-store-honey-isnt-honey/#.WyL42BIzqik
- Read how the FDA & ICE have tracked where fraudulent honey comes from & what they’re doing to stop it. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/08/honey-laundering/#.WyBL7zMzqil
- Numerous countries are complicit with honey laundering. Read more about the suspect countries involved in this scheme: http://www.beeculture.com/catch-buzz-canadian-honey-council-blames-transshipped-chinese-honey-destroying-honey-market/
- Manuka Mania! Read about the crimewave created by Manuka Honey https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-manuka-honey-scandal-9577344.html and what the New Zealand government is doing to curb manuka laundering https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/91474477/government-releases-manuka-honey-definition-to-deal-with-fraud-claims
- Read about the arrests of a few food-conglomerate employees that helped expose the honey laundering racket: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/world/honey-laundering
- Honey laundering is an issue worldwide, not just in the US. Read more about how fake honey is all over the EU. https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/honeygate-how-europe-is-being-flooded-with-fake-honey/
- Want to know if your supermarket honey is legit? See if they participate in the voluntary True Source Certified system to trace the product’s supply chain. Check the member’s list of importers, exporters, food packers, and even beekeepers: https://tshmember.com/
- Interested in bees & pollinators? Here are some great websites for research: http://www.beeculture.com https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/
- Read about the health benefits of bee pollen https://draxe.com/bee-pollen/
- Read more on the health benefits of raw honey https://draxe.com/the-many-health-benefits-of-raw-honey/
Read our other Honey Blog Posts including How to Plant a Pollinator Garden for Bees, Printable Honey Bee Coloring Pages, & our Book Review for “Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey”.
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