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Illegally Sourced Honey: The Bitter Side Of The Honey Industry

Fifty percent of U.S. consumers buy honey for direct consumption, and 75 percent consume honey as an ingredient in food items. But did you know that the honey you purchase may not be 100 percent pure or safe? According to the True Source Honey Initiative, illegally sourced honey is a large problem that is hurting the U.

Fifty percent of U.S. consumers buy honey for direct consumption, and 75 percent consume honey as an ingredient in food items. But did you know that the honey you purchase may not be 100 percent pure or safe? According to the True Source Honey Initiative, illegally sourced honey is a large problem that is hurting the U.S. honey industry as well as threatening public safety. Food Manufacturing spoke with Jill Clark, an advocate for the initiative, about this issue.

Q: What is the True Source Honey initiative and what are its main goals?

A: We need people to ask where the honey they enjoy is coming from—whether it’s from the jar or used in a cereal, salad dressing, beverage, power bar or other food product. And we need food manufacturers to examine how they’re sourcing honey. Legally sourced honey is being undercut by illegally traded honey from China, and it’s a serious threat to the health of honest honey companies and the survival of U.S. beekeepers. There also are food safety and quality implications since this illegal honey is sometimes adulterated.

The True Source Honey Initiative (TrueSourceHoney.com) is an effort by a number of honey companies and importers to call attention to this problem, to encourage action to protect consumers and producers from these practices and to highlight and support legal, transparent and ethical sourcing. Honey still has a reputation as a high-quality, highly valued food, but we need to work together to maintain that reputation.

Q: Why is illegally sourced honey an issue?

A: When honey is imported illegally, no one can be confident of its true source and quality. Some products are not 100 percent honey and have been found to contain antibiotics, added syrups, and sweetener extenders.

Quality U.S. honey operations are also essential for the honeybees needed to pollinate dozens of fruit, vegetable and seed crops across the United States. One out of every three bites of food we take in this country relies on pollination from our honeybees.

Illegal honey imports also carry a price tag. We estimate the U.S. lost up to $100 million in 2008 and $106 million in 2009 in uncollected duties because of illegal honey imports. Ethical U.S. companies and beekeepers are undercut by these illegal imports and are increasingly finding it harder to compete.

Q: Are there any regulations currently in place to protect the integrity of honey, either in the U.S. or for imports?

A: U.S. honey producers first petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a federal standard for honey in March 2006; however, the FDA has still not defined what constitutes pure honey. Individual states have begun acting on their own, and Florida, Wisconsin and California all have established a standard of identity for honey, which is a step in the right direction.

In addition, the FDA is working with Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target commodities that pose health and safety risks—specifically imported substandard, tainted and counterfeit products. These efforts have led to seizures of honey and recently there has been a crackdown on importers trying to smuggle honey into the U.S. market.

Nevertheless, the problem continues even as more companies are indicted on honey laundering charges. The True Source Honey Initiative seeks to involve the food manufacturing community and consumers of honey in the effort. Examining the source of honey will by itself put as much pressure on these illegal actors as government efforts and perhaps will do even more to stem the tide of illegal imports.

Q: Has there been any recent progress in the fight to eliminate illegally sourced honey?

A: This June, New York Sen. Charles Schumer wrote to the FDA requesting the creation of “pure honey" standards that would provide federal agents with more power to crack down on illegally sourced honey. Schumer said he would work with the U.S. honey industry to prepare legislation that would give Customs greater authority to crack down on honey laundering through other countries.

Two days after Schumer’s letter, the FDA announced that it seized at a Philadelphia distribution center 64 drums, worth $32,000, of imported Chinese honey that was contaminated with the antibiotic chloramphenicol. In response to the incident, Schumer praised the FDA for taking a big enforcement step but called for a larger sweep of honey shipments entering the U.S.

Also, on Aug. 4, a Taiwanese honey importer pleaded guilty to conspiring to avoid more than $5 million in U.S. anti-dumping duties by illegally importing Chinese honey that was falsely identified as coming from South Korean, Taiwan, Thailand and India. The importer admitted that in 2009 he conspired with others to fraudulently import about $8 million of honey that was diluted and blended with 20 to 30 percent artificial sugar.

These efforts are helpful but by themselves are not yet stemming the tide of illegal honey undercutting honest suppliers and beekeepers. We need food manufacturers and consumers to ask for additional information about where and how their honey is sourced.

Q: What can food manufacturers do to help correct the problem of illegally sourced honey?

A: We encourage food manufacturers to take action and work to ensure they are purchasing ethically and legally sourced honey. Food manufacturers should ask their suppliers how the honey was harvested, including where the beekeepers are based and what practices they use. It is important for manufacturers to find out all they can about the source of the honey they buy. Food manufacturers should ask importers for a copy of their customs form 3461 to determine the country of origin and to confirm that the H.S. code is 0409.00.00, the natural honey code. The source should be known, trusted and transparent. Our advice is if you're not sure of the source, don't buy the honey. It’s possible to know the source back to the hive, even when honey is sourced from one of the many reputable, foreign packers who supply honey to the U.S. market.

Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

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