Five people and two U.S. honey processors were charged with federal crimes last week as a result of an investigation into illegal importation of honey from China, known as “Honeygate,” led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations.
The government is alleging that Chinese honey — which can be laced with illegal and unsafe antibiotics — was misdeclared when it was imported to the United States and routed through other countries to evade more than $180 million in anti-dumping duties. HSI and Customs and Border Protection said late last week they have stepped up efforts to combat commercial fraud that directly impacts the economy and public health.
The charges come more than a year after an investigation by Food Safety News found that laboratory tests could not detect the origin of more than three quarters of honey purchased at retail locations because ultra-filtration methods remove naturally occurring pollen and make honey impossible to trace. Many in the industry say this practice contributes to honey laundering.
As one honey producer put it: “It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China.”
According to the government, Honey Holding, which was doing business as Honey Solutions of Baytown, Texas and Groeb Farms Inc. of Onsted, Michigan — two of the country’s largest honey suppliers — have entered into deferred prosecution agreements. Honey Holding has agreed to pay $1 million and Groeb Farms has agreed to pay $2 million in fines. Both companies have also agreed to implement corporate compliance programs as part of their respective agreements.
“These businesses intentionally deprived the U.S. government of millions of dollars in unpaid duties,” said ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale. “Schemes like this result in legitimate importers and the domestic honey-producing industry enduring years of unprofitable operations, with some even being put out of business. We will continue to enforce criminal violations of anti-dumping laws in all industries so American and foreign businesses all play by the same rules.”
In a news release last week, the government said the individual defendants also include three honey brokers, the former director of sales for Honey Holding and the president of Premium Food Sales Inc., a broker and distributor of raw and processed honey in Bradford, Ontario.
As reported in 2011, Ernie Groeb, the president and CEO of Groeb Farms Inc., which calls itself “the world’s largest packer of honey,” told Food Safety News that doesn’t have a specific requirement regarding pollen content for the 85 million pounds of honey Groeb Farms purchases.
“We buy basically what’s considered raw honey. We trust good suppliers. That’s what we rely on,” said Groeb.
The government started investigating allegations of circumventing anti-dumping duties in the honey trade in 2008. The investigation resulted in charges against 14 individuals, including executives of a German food conglomerate. Several people were charged with evading approximately $80 million in anti-dumping duties on Chinese honey and officials seized more than 3,000 drums of honey that illegally entered the U.S.
The second phase of the investigation, announced last week, focuses on honey that was bought and processed by U.S. companies for domestic sale.
“Some of that honey was adulterated with antibiotics not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in honey,” said DHS. “None of the charges allege any instances of illness or other public health consequences attributed to consumption of the honey. The investigation is continuing.”
DHS did not return requests for more information about antibiotic residues in the illegally imported honey.
“Trade fraud can have significant implications for the U.S. economy and consumers,” said Customs and Border Patrol Chief Operating Officer Thomas S. Winkowski, in a statement. “These products take jobs away from American workers and frequently violate U.S. health and safety standards, potentially endangering the public. CBP is committed to fighting these fraudulent actors alongside our government partners.”
See Food Safety News‘ investigation on ultra-filtered and illegally imported honey by Andrew Schneider: Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey.© Food Safety News