Foreign producers import adulterated honey

| Saturday, March 7, 2015, 10:30 p.m.

The word “Latvia” put up a red flag for Richard Halvorsen.

The 660 barrels of honey shipped into the port of Houston bore labels stating they came from the Baltic country of about 2.1 million people that produces almost no honey.

“Latvia imports most of its honey. That honey was probably from China, which has had anti-dumping restrictions from the U.S. for years,” said Halvorsen, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Houston, where federal agents last month seized nearly 37,000 gallons of frozen “Latvian” honey from a warehouse.

A growing demand for honey, dwindling production due, in large part, to the collapse of domestic bee colonies, and rising prices have given rise to a practice industry experts call “honey laundering.” What's labeled as pure honey in fact may be a honey blend or honey syrup — honey adulterated with cane sugar or corn syrup — or product that contains antibiotic residue, the Food and Drug Administration said.

Though it's not illegal to sell honey blends, the product must be labeled that way, and often that does not happen, said the trade group True Source Honey LLC.

Honey laundering frustrates domestic honey producers. The industry wants a national purity standard for honey, much like standards for maple syrup and grape jelly, said Jill Clark, vice president of Dutch Gold Honey in Lancaster, Pennsylvania's largest honey producer and one of the biggest in the country.

“People want to know what they are buying. We want them to know what we are selling is really honey. That's gotten harder with tainted honey imports,” Clark said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, is trying to insert a provision into the Farm Bill — legislative regulation of agricultural and food policies — that would establish a national honey standard.

“U.S. consumers could decide that honey is no longer a safe product. Without swift action to curb these imports, the chances of a food-borne illness from honey could grow,” said Casey, a Scranton Democrat.

Suspicious shipments

The world's largest producer of honey is China. The honey made there has been on the radar of trade, customs and food safety officials since 2001, when the government imposed anti-dumping duties as high as 221 percent on Chinese honey sold in the United States at less than fair-market value.

The next year, the FDA issued an import alert, a heads-up to customs officials for honey containing chloramphenicol, an antibiotic used to treat serious infections in humans that's not approved for use in honey or any other food. Chinese honey manufacturers use the chemical to treat unhealthy bee colonies, industry officials say.

“It was part of a series of shipments from suspicious countries, which usually means the honey is from China,” said Halvorsen, whose agency handles customs inspections and border protection.

Gordon Marks, executive director of True Source Honey — an industry effort to document honey sources — said he is not aware of a domestic producer adulterating its honey. Such products generally originate overseas, he said.

Voluntary compliance

In 2011, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, asked the FDA to implement a honey standard. They were rebuffed.

Instead, the FDA issued labeling guidelines and recommendations for which compliance is voluntary.

In an email, the agency explained: “We denied the petition because the petition did not provide reasonable grounds for FDA to adopt the (legislators') standard for honey. We also concluded that the petitioners' goals can be achieved by our existing authorities, and a standard of identity for honey would not promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers.”

Pure honey should be labeled as such, the FDA said. Labeling may or may not identify a floral source, such as orange blossom or clover. Products consisting of honey mixed with a sweetener should not be labeled as honey, the FDA said.

Deciding on a standard is not easy, said William R. Nichols, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which has set no standard for the state.

“The department has been working with the beekeeping industry to develop honey standards. Many issues are involved, including even the definition of honey,” he said.

Ways of processing honey include leaving pollen in it, taking pollen out and heating honey, Nichols said.

Tracking the hives

Selling honey with additives such as cane sugar or corn syrup is legal in the United States as long as it's clearly identified, said Eric Wenger, board chairman of True Source Honey. There are no known reports of illness from such products, he said.

Watchdog groups agree on the need for a stringent identity standard for products such as honey, olive oil and spices.

“We know there is a lot of adulteration. It is a place where we need more federal enforcement. There are pretty rampant problems,” said Laura MacLeery, a lawyer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Americans consume 450 million tons of honey each year — three times the 150 million tons of honey the country produces annually, according to the Department of Agriculture. Halvorsen with Homeland Security said the agency is able to inspect only a fraction of imported products.

“It's not always easy to know what you are buying. We want consumers to be certain of what they are getting,” said Wenger.

True Source Honey has a logo that indicates a producer has enrolled in a voluntary system of traceability through an independent third party, verifying that its sourcing practices comply with international trade laws.

This system permits the tracking of honey from the consumer back through the supply chain to the country of origin — and the beekeeper who harvested the honey from the hive, Wenger said.

Honey laundering coincides with plagues that have killed commercial honeybees at high rates.

Dave Hackenberg of Union County, Pennsylvania's largest commercial beekeeper, said his bees once produced 250,000 pounds of honey each year. Since researchers identified colony collapse disorder in 2006, Hackenberg's annual honey production has fallen to 180,000 pounds or less.

“This is just flat illegal importation,” he said of tainted imports. “The U.S. is the dumping ground. It affects the market.”

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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