Tainted Chinese Honey May Be on U.S. Store Shelves

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Millions of pounds of tainted Chinese honey are likely making their way onto U.S. store shelves, according to an investigation by Food Safety News (FSN). The online daily news site reports that Chinese honeymakers are laundering their products through other Asian nations, including India, Vietnam and Malaysia, in order to smuggle it into the U.S.

The ploy is a way to get around paying the steep tariffs — up to $1.20 per pound — that the U.S. has imposed on cheap Chinese honey, FSN’s Andrew Schneider reports. The scheme is being aided by American importers and lax enforcement by the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA):

Experts interviewed by Food Safety News say some of the largest and most long-established U.S. honey packers are knowingly buying mislabeled, transshipped or possibly altered honey so they can sell it cheaper than those companies who demand safety, quality and rigorously inspected honey.

“It’s no secret that the honey smuggling is being driven by money, the desire to save a couple of pennies a pound,” said Richard Adee, who is the Washington Legislative Chairman of the American Honey Producers Association.

“These big packers are still using imported honey of uncertain safety that they know is illegal because they know their chances of getting caught are slim,” Adee said.

What’s wrong with honey from China? For one thing, it may contain lead, a toxin that accumulates in the body and can cause neurological damage, particularly in young children. The lead contamination has been traced back to the thousands of small beekeeping operations in China that use unlined, lead-soldered drums to collect and store honey before transferring it to processors.

Further, FSN reports, Chinese honey may contain tiny amounts of an antibiotic known as chloramphenicol, which was used in the early 2000s to thwart a bacterial epidemic that was killing tens of millions of bees. The FDA has banned the presence of the drug in food; even in small amounts, it can cause a severe or fatal reaction in about 1 out of 30,000 people.

Much of the honey made in China isn’t honey at all, Schneider reports:

Another favorite con among Chinese brokers was to mix sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn or rice syrup, jaggery, barley malt sweetener or other additives with a bit of actual honey. In recent years, many shippers have eliminated the honey completely and just use thickened, colored, natural or chemical sweeteners labeled as honey.

The European Union has banned honey coming from India, which is considered a majoring laundering site for honey originating in China, but the U.S. is still importing it. FSN points to shipping data from Aug. 12 tracking the route of some 688,000 pounds of honey from the Chinese port of Nansha in Guangzhou, China, to Little Bee Honey, an exporter in India, over the previous month. Within the previous week, shipping documents showed that six shipments of honey, with the same identification numbers as honey shipped from China, had gone from Little Bee to Los Angeles.

To get a sense of how where the honey on the U.S. market originates, Schneider offers some statistics:

  • The U.S. consumes about 400 million lbs. of honey a year, about 1.3 lbs. a person
  • U.S. beekeepers can supply only about 48% of demand; the rest is imported
  • Of the 208 million lbs. of honey imported by the U.S. over the past 18 months, 48 million lbs. came from trusted suppliers in Latin America and Canada, while 123 million lbs., or nearly 60% of what was imported, came from Asia, including 45 million lbs. from India alone

“This should be a red flag to FDA and the federal investigators. India doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity — enough bees — to produce 45 million pounds of honey. It has to come from China,” Adee, a past president of the American Honey Producers Association, told FSN.

The full FSN investigation is worth reading; find it here.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.