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Food Safety News

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Top Food Safety Stories of 2011: No. 7

The 7th most important food safety story of 2011 was the investigation by Food Safety News into the world honey trade.

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It’s been a decade since the U.S. Commerce Department ordered stiff import tariffs to prevent the tsunami of plastic bears and jars filled with government-subsidized Chinese honey from flooding our local stores.

If the measurement of success of the tariff is the quality of honey on U.S. grocery shelves, then the effort has mostly failed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to refuse to follow the major international food safety agencies and issue a simple federal standard for honey.  Even though, at the same time, U.S. criminal investigators work to break up what appears to be an endless flow of Chinese gangs smuggling, importing and selling honey that may be bogus or of questionable quality.

The Chinese have instituted and refined numerous methods to launder, transship or mislabel honey to get it past customs and on to U.S. store shelves. 

While the FDA is doing little or nothing to protect consumers, this fall, the American Honey Producers Association petitioned the Commerce Department to tighten restrictions against the Chinese for mislabeling honey as honey blends to avoid import restrictions. 

Food Safety News spend several months investigating what consumers were buying to slather on their toast and biscuits or drizzle in their tea or on their ice cream.  The results of hundreds of interviews and weeks of laboratory analysis concluded:  If you want to ensure you’re getting real honey, as the bees made it, buy it from your local farmers market or beekeeper.

In August,  FSN reported that a third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may have been laundered in other Asian countries before being shipped to U.S. stores.  Food Safety News documented that millions of pounds of Indian honey banned in the 27 countries of the European Union and elsewhere were being imported and sold in the U.S. in record quantities. 

European food safety investigators barred all shipments of honey from India because of the presence of lead and illegal animal antibiotics.  Further, they found an even larger percentage of honey apparently had been ultra-filtered to remove any proof of contaminants or adulteration or indications of precisely where the honey actually originated. 

Responding to the requests of numerous readers, FNS contracted with one of the world’s three best pollen analysis laboratories to examine honey purchased off store shelves in 10 states and Washington, D.C. 

Prof. Vaughn Bryant, from Texas A&M University’s pollen research lab, found a total absence of pollen in 76 percent of honey samples purchased in major grocery chains, 77 percent from big box stores and 100 percent of the drug store brands. 

On the positive side, Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores contained the anticipated levels of pollen.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    Excuse me for being so ignorant of honey details, but why is the presence or absence of pollen in honey important? When I’ve purchased honey, I’ve never been the least bit concerned with how much pollen is in the honey.
    And I’m in the dark about the presence of illegal animal antibiotics in honey. Are we somehow injecting antibiotics into bees? You hold the bee, and I’ll administer the shot from a distance.
    Can someone explain?
    John Munsell

  • BB

    The only way to identify the source of honey is through pollen analysis. Smugglers of potentially adulterated honey will intentionally remove all of the pollen thus making it impossible to tell where the honey came from. Also, some people claim the pollen in honey helps with allergies.
    Some beekeepers use antibiotics (through feeding) to prevent or treat disease just like any other animal. Residues can show up in the honey if not properly administered.

  • Browning Honey for Money

    It is absurd to suggest ultrafiltered honey is not honey. If antibiotics tainted the honey ultrafiltration would not remove them or mask the crime. These sacred pollen profiles, who else besides this obscure retired microscopist pretends to verify the provenance of honey so adroitly?
    It certainly does all sound like a desperate hoax being cooked up. I hope no taxpayer money was squandered on any of this silly “pollen testing” malpractice. Is there no constructive means for your paid columnist to earn his keep? In good faith we cannot abide his paranoid hoaxing.

  • John Munsell

    Excuse me for being so ignorant of honey details, but why is the presence or absence of pollen in honey important? When I’ve purchased honey, I’ve never been the least bit concerned with how much pollen is in the honey.
    And I’m in the dark about the presence of illegal animal antibiotics in honey. Are we somehow injecting antibiotics into bees? You hold the bee, and I’ll administer the shot from a distance.
    Can someone explain?
    John Munsell

  • Rick van Vliet

    Say, Browning…do your research. Pollen analysis can identify the source of honey. The countries where the ultra-filtration is practiced can filter out the pollen which would identify their product. The adulterated crap that the Chinese are dumping and laundering it through Vietnam and India for example…can then be labeled as Vietnamese with no pollen remaining to be able to accurately identify it as Chinese, thus allowing the Chinese to flood the market with potentially hazardous product…and artificially deflated pricing, besides.
    And John…antibiotics can be administered to hives using vapor pads or food supplement patties. When these antibiotics are in the hive when hony is being packed into cells, the illegal (in the US, illegal) antibiotic substances get into the honey and then dumped on the world market after ultra-filtering the pollen out…which identifies the regionally specific plants that the bees were feasting on.
    What part of this don’t y’all get? Really?