Know Your Beekeeper

Honey is a beautiful gift from my bees.  Straight from the honeycomb to the jar, honey is concentrated nectar from thousands of wildflower blossoms – it is a delicate balance of sugars, aromas, enzymes, amino acids, and vitamins.  Used to sweeten tea, baked in cereals, and mixed in cough drops, honey has become a staple of the North American diet.  Unfortunately, honey continues to be exposed to environmental insults by unscrupulous business people. “Know your beekeeper” continues to be my mantra.

The United States produces only a half of the honey we consume a year so honey is imported to make up the difference.  In fact, United States honey imports increased almost 30% in 2010 from the prior year to over 126,200 tons valued at $296 million[1].  China is the world’s largest producer of honey so it would seem that they would be a natural candidate to satiate the American appetite.  But, as is becoming widely known, Chinese shipments are notorious for being contaminated with illegal substances and heavy metals including lead, and/or adulterated through dilution and blending with artificial sugar.  In fact, the European Union has banned the importation of Chinese honey because of these cases.

China was the leading supplier of US imported honey from 2002 through 2007 (over 32,000 tons in 2006).  While the U.S. tariff of more than two dollars for every kilogram of Chinese-origin honey temporarily stemmed its importation, large quantities are currently finding their way to the U.S. market via transshipments through second or third party countries.

Vietnam, India, Argentina, and Malaysia were the leading suppliers for direct shipments of honey to the United States in 20101.  What makes these countries of origin suspect is that India, Malaysia, and Indonesia exported no honey to the United States ten years ago, current transport logs show that Argentina exports over 95 percent of its honey output[2], and Vietnam shipped over 652 tons of white honey to the United States last year[3], although it is a country that does not produce white honey (the color of honey is denoted in large part by the flowers from which it is made).

The actual court cases regarding honey laundering are the most telling.  In November 2010, a Taiwanese executive of several honey import companies was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay over $5 million for conspiring to avoid more than $5 million in US anti-dumping duties by illegally importing Chinese-origin honey that was falsely identified as coming from South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and India[4].  Michael Fan also admitted that he conspired with others to fraudulently import about $8 million of honey that was diluted and blended with 20-30% artificial sugar to increase his profit margin.   In September 2010, the US Department of Justice indicted fifteen individuals and six corporations on federal charges for allegedly participating in an international conspiracy between the years 2002 and 2009.  As per the indictment, they illegally imported more than $40 million of Chinese-origin honey that was mislabeled as coming from Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand to avoid antidumping duties[5].   As part of the conspiracy, defendants had honey en route to the United States tested by a German laboratory and, after learning that it contained antibiotics not approved for use in honey production, sold it to U.S. customers and even re-sold some after it was rejected by others due to the presence of the antibiotics.  In yet another example, in June 2010, the Food and Drug Administration seized 64 drums of imported Chinese honey in Philadelphia because the honey contained chloramphenicol, a potent antibiotic that could lead to serious illness or death and is not approved for food, animal feed, or food-producing animals in the United States[6].

The World Honey Congress is establishing an ethical trading group to eliminate unfair international trading practices and countries are establishing principles and policies to ensure the purity of honey.  The problem is that initiatives will take years to implement and even then, there will always be the ones who find a route around the regulations.

While all packed honey sold in the United States must state the country of origin by law, I will always question its veracity given current international trade practices.  My advice is “know your beekeeper”.   Talk with your local beekeeper about where her hives are located, how they are managed, and when the honey is harvested.  Beekeepers are part of your community and we want to stay that way.

[1] US Department of Agriculture. February 15, 2011. National Honey Report , Number XXXI – #1.  12 pages.

[2] Parker, John. December 2010. American Bee Journal, Volume 150 No. 12. “U.S. Honey Imports Jump in 2010” pages 1111-1112

[3] US Department of Agriculture. February 15, 2011. National Honey Report , Number XXXI – #1.  12 pages.

[4] US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. November 5, 2010. News Release: Honey importer sentenced to 30 months for conspiring to evade US import duties

[5] U.S. Department of Justice. US Attorney Northern District of Illinois.  September 1, 2010. News Release: Eleven German and Chinese executives and six companies tied to German food conglomerate indicted on federal charges alleging conspiracy to illegally import Chinese honey.  6 pages.

[6] US Food and Drug Administration. June 10, 2010. News Release: FDA seizes more than $32,000 worth of bulk honey from Philadelphia Distribution Center.

7 thoughts on “Know Your Beekeeper

    1. Yes, Thanks for heads-up. I hope the information about bees and other pollinators helps the folks you counsel. Sincerely, laura

  1. We have purchased honey for some time from our vendor, US Foods, (US Foodservice, INC). Over time the color of the honey has changed indicating some kind of adulteration to this product. MOre importantly, there is no label to say the country of origin. Monarch which is US Foods is on the label but nothing else. Given there is so little honey produced in the US I can only surmise that its origins are outside the country. Disappointing to deal with a food vendor that doesn’t comply with the law.

Comments are closed.