Water | Agriculture | Ecotrope

Why China's laundered honey still needs cleaning

Ecotrope | Jan. 11, 2011 12:07 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:42 p.m.

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Since the U.S. cracked down on diluted, underpriced and contaminated honey from China, Chinese honey has continued to flow into U.S. markets after being laundered through other countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan – that have no records of producing honey for export. Unfortunately, those countries don't launder out all the impurities for American consumers.

Since the U.S. cracked down on diluted, underpriced and contaminated honey from China, Chinese honey has continued to flow into U.S. markets after being laundered through other countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan – that have no records of producing honey for export. Unfortunately, those countries don't launder out all the impurities for American consumers.

Tainted and diluted Chinese honey is still flowing into U.S. markets despite a ban, a steep tariff and a major food fraud indictment, American beekeepers told the Toronto Globe and Mail last week.

That’s the latest in the Chinese honey laundering saga that’s been unfolding over the past few years.

To avoid tariffs and food safety regulations, honey handlers in Asia “wash” Chinese products in a network of other countries, adding new packaging and labels to mask its origin before shipping it to the U.S. And according to a 2008 Seattle P-I investigation, the Pacific Northwest is a landing pad for smuggled honey imports.

A series of seizures and arrests were made in an alleged international honey trade conspiracy in 2008, and in September, a grand jury indicted 11 executives and six foreign companies in the resulting food fraud case.

What in the world is going on here?

Well, to start, U.S. consumes a lot more honey than it produces (450 million pounds to 190 million pounds in 2008), and demand has been on the rise as more products use honey as an ingredient.

China is a big producer of honey, but it uses antibiotics to keep its bees healthy that the U.S. doesn’t like to see in any of its products. One in particular, chloramphenicol, can be deadly to some people, which is why it is banned from food products in the U.S.

Chinese honey producers inject some honey with water, heat it, filter it and distill it into syrup, which wipes out antibiotics but turns it into a diluted, less valuable product that can be sold below the price of regular honey production.

From The Globe and Mail:

“The spread of inexpensive honey prompted an outcry from local beekeepers in both countries, most of whom could not compete with the Chinese players.

In the U.S., a hefty tariff – more than two dollars for every kilogram of Chinese-origin honey – was levied. But the tax only temporarily dammed the flow. Official Chinese honey exports to the U.S. fell, but the country’s honey production capacity increased, according to statistics collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“We saw a flurry of honey starting to come into the U.S. from countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines – that had never been exporters to the U.S. before,” said Jill Clark, vice-president of sales at Dutch Gold, a honey vendor involved in a multi-stakeholder effort to stop laundering. “All of a sudden they had millions of pounds of honey to sell, at very cheap prices.”

Sometimes the Chinese honey is deliberately mislabeled as molasses, fructose or glucose syrup to mask the numbers of honey shipments coming into the U.S.

In addition to putting honey consumers at risk, this scheme is slowly gnawing away at the domestic beekeepers business – because it puts cheaper honey on the market than they’re able to produce.

And that is a much bigger problem for the country as a whole because beekeepers maintain a major source of crop pollinators in the U.S. And, as we heard last week, pollinators are a a dying breed.

So, check the label before you buy your next honey bear. If it doesn’t say “Made in China,” that doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in China. According to court documents, the countries suspected of laundering honey include Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

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