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Letter From the Editor: The Bogus Honey Story Won’t Die

Opinion

Foodborne disease outbreaks and recalls usually dictate the foods we cover. We usually follow the pathogens without any other discriminating factor. So, if we are focused on beef, or spinach, or sprouts, or cantaloupe, or whatever, we just follow the story.

Of course, there are always exceptions to rules. Food Safety News has been fortunate in the past five years to be associated with some extraordinary journalists. We were able, mostly in 2011, to bring on two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider to work on some special projects for us. His job was to poke into some food dangers not related to bacteria and viruses.

In his time with us, Andrew turned his spotlight on arsenic finding its way into juices and rice, nanoparticles in food, and, oh yes, honey. His series of investigative reports on honey remains very much alive on Food Safety News. They’ve attracted thousands upon thousands of readers and generated hundreds of comments. It continues to this day.

The most popular of these reports was his story on the testing of honey purchased from retail stores all over the country: Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey: Ultra-filtering Removes Pollen, Hides Honey Origins. We call it the “bogus honey story,” and I caught up with Andrew about it because, this past week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with new “draft guidance” for the honey industry on “Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products.”

His Pulitzers for investigative reports on organ transplants and the medical airworthiness of airline pilots are now in the journalism history books, but Schneider acknowledges that his article on bogus honey for Food Safety News is “the story that won’t die.”

He still gets from six to 15 calls every month from consumers, packagers, and state and federal investigators about the quality of the honey they are dealing with. The crux of the issue is that when the pollen, those microscopic particles from deep inside the flower, are totally removed, there’s no way to tell if the “honey” came from a legitimate and safe source.

Pollen is removed from honey by a process known as ultra-filtering, in which honey is heated, sometimes watered down, and then forced through micro-filters with high pressure. Once the pollen is removed, it opens the door to illegal dumping of honey measured by the tonnage. For years, the Chinese have illegally dumped into the U.S. market millions of dollars worth of their “honey,” which is often exposed to illegal antibiotics. They have a harder time getting their “laundered” honey into places such as Europe because many world food-safety authorities say that ultra-filtered honey missing its pollen is no longer honey.

Those countries insist on being able to determine the origin of the honey being sold within their national boundaries.

This is probably where you expect me to say that, with the new draft guidance, we are shortly going to know where our honey comes from. But, sadly, FDA has no intention of closing the bogus honey loophole. Schneider tells me that his sources who investigate these shipments say that “adulterated Chinese honey is still flowing into U.S. ports.” Nothing is going to change.

Indeed, the main problem is that FDA simply will not define honey as containing pollen and, therefore, make it traceable to its country of origin. Instead, the agency goes off about how it accepts the “common usage” of the term “honey,” which is “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.”

FDA’s “guidance” says that honey is a “single ingredient food” and the floral source need not be declared. In a nutshell, FDA is drawing its line at labeling issues and is not going to get involved in whether pollen is missing. In the unlikely event that some test results pop up showing positives for antibiotic residues of chloramphenicol or fluoroquinolones, FDA promises it will do its enforcement thing.

The same people Schneider talks to down in the trenches say that those who trade in adulterated Chinese honey have powerful, well-financed lobbyists to keep FDA away from doing anything effective about laundered honey. They’ve been successful in their mission for a long time, too. Back on March 8, 2006, the American Beekeeping Federation tried to get FDA to adopt the world standard for establishing the identity of honey by filing a petition. It was formally rejected by the current administration on Oct. 5, 2011, which suggested – we kid you not – that the same goal could be achieved with “honesty and fair dealing.”

In the month after that petition was denied, Food Safety News went on a shopping spree buying honey at retail all over the country to acquire the honey samples Schneider required for his independent testing story – when he found that three out of four jars or bottles of honey were missing their pollen. All those involved in Chinese honey laundering are probably still laughing over the line about “honesty and fair dealing.” Ultra-filtered Chinese honey that may be adulterated with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals is blindly accepted here in the U.S., but it’s blocked by less-trusting countries around the world.

Safe, pure honey is important to those countries. But, apparently, we are not among them.

P.S. Andrew Schneider first came to my attention about a decade ago when he was working for the late, great Seattle Post-Intelligencer writing about the asbestos poisoning of the little mining town of Libby, MT. Along with P-I editor David McCumber, he captured that amazing story in the book “An Air That Kills.”

© Food Safety News
  • Ricardo Sierra

    It would be helpful if your article described what the additives or those heavy metals or antibiotics do to a person over a prolonged period of time, and how they are getting into the ‘false honey’ in the first place, and whether or not there is a way for consumers to identify it in the store.

    Great article, though!

  • John Munsell

    On Feb 26, 2013 Helena Bottemiller had an excellent report on Food Safety News entitled “Honeygate Sting Leads to Charges for Illegal Chinese Honey Importation”. It reported that two of America’s largest honey suppliers agreed to pay $1 million and $2 million in fines. In both cases, Chinese honey was misdeclared when it was imported into the United States and routed through other countries to evade more than $180 million in anti-dumping duties. This constitutes commercial fraud which directly impacts our economy. It also impacts public health, because some of it was laced with illegal and unsafe antibiotics and heavy metals. How can our government allow this to persist? the answer is found in the article above. FDA has authored protocol which prevents it from tracing honey back to its country of origin. We now belong to a global economy, policed by WTO which prevents nations from implementing food safety policies which “artificially restrict” the free flow of adulterated products world wide. Governments and multinational companies all desire seamless, unrestricted trade, which is the foundation of the highly-touted “Free Trade” agreements which control global movement of goods today. All open-minded, progressive citizens are expected to bow down at the altar of free global trade. Who cares if our meat , honey or whatever comes from China, Banladesh, Peru, or North Korea? “Honesty and fair dealing” are catchy phrases, totally divorced from reality, certainly divorced from “Honesty”. FDA & USDA are no longer focused on protecting American citizens, and promoting domestic industries and job opportunities, but focused on placating multinational companies and lobbyists referrred to in the article above. Americans, quit your belly-aching! We’ve willingly acquiesced our autonomy to WTO, and are now global citizens. Get used to it. John Munsell

    • Oginikwe

      No, we did not “willingly acquiesce our autonomy,” it was taken from us when we were too busy trying to live and not paying attention. Time for a new food paradigm separate from mass produced food and separate from the FDA.

  • Rae Cavan

    It all comes down to “Buy Local”. The only way to avoid these comtaminations which occur in more foods than can be imagined is to buy local and as little processed as possible.

  • Bill Pilacinski

    There have been many stories lately, including here on Food Safety News, about FDA getting criticized for their attempts to implement their Food Safety Modernization Act, and a March 2014 Food Safety News article awarded FDA a gold medal for food safety compared to the EU. Now, according to Food Safety News, FDA isn’t doing a good enough job. Poor FDA – they just can’t seem to satisfy everyone. But you don’t need pollen to detect DNA and filtering will not get rid of it. And you don’t need the FDA to detect it – just pay one of the many companies that will detect GM DNA in food products to develop a process for detecting Chinese pollen DNA in honey. Develop a library of probes for common Chinese pollen sources and you have the process. Why do we have to rely on the government to protect us from everything we can imagine we need to be protected from?

    • Oginikwe

      Better yet, don’t import honey.

  • Anon

    I don’t understand why people keep saying to not import honey, as if “buying local” meant that domestics companies do not adulterate foods. No matter where the companies are from, if they have money interests and little care about the people they will adulterate the products. Even small companies that lack education, in the name of savings, would adulterate the product without knowing the consequences.

    • grifty

      Exactly. Buying local is good for the sake that it reduces transportation pollution, provides local jobs, pays local taxes and gives you fresher food. It doesn’t mean your food is safer.

      One exception: don’t buy any food produced in China.

  • farmber

    Sorry Dan but the misplaced modifier in “The Bogus Honey Story Won’t Die” could be taken to mean that the story is bogus — not the honey…

    …and really, there’s big bucks involved and all — but how can FDA let this stand???

    • RS

      Were you under the mistaken impression the FDA works FOR the American people? Really?

    • Tessa Sparrow

      It was that journalistic subterfuge that made me read the article, so…objective achieved, job done.

  • Patrice Kussmaul

    That is why you need to buy honey from a local beekeeper…look at what you are buying I point out the pollen in our honey.

    • BenMerca

      Not to mention that is the honey that you will also derive the best value in fighting alergies….

  • Laura Cherington

    So could you tell us what honey is real honey? Seems the labels don’t contain the clues. I saw raw, natural, unfiltered honey at Costco today…what to think????

    • Gavin

      I believe that Costco filters there honey somewhat but certifies that there honey comes from the USA and contains no antibiotics, hormones or metals. Not 100% sure but believe it is good real honey.

  • Mary Goodson

    I buy my honey at my local farmer’s market, from the guy who has the beehives. Easy peasy!

  • Gavin

    The article leaves a lot out but the important thing to know is it is happening and the simple way to avoid it is to buy local, low or unfiltered honey. If the “honey” is clear, be very suspicious. Even names that say organic, or brands like clover, have tested positive for antibiotics and metals in high levels. Simply look in the newspaper, stop by your local farmers markets or talk to a neighborhood beekeeper or fruit grower and you should be able to track down some fresh, local, real honey.

  • justicewon1

    I purchase honey locally from a farmer in town. I am in fear of eating anything from China, and I have read many horror stories that China owns meat companies in the United States. It’s so frightening.

  • DSetzer

    I agree that the title is misleading. When I first read it, I thought the original story was bogus, not the honey.

  • Joel Jones

    My apologies if I am misinformed, but I was under the impression that nearly all of the USA honey bee population is currently unable to sustain life without a steady diet of manufactured fake sugar-water and antibiotics. If this is true, isn’t the “buy local” product likely to contain antibiotics and unnatural chemicals as well? Hope I am wrong!

  • Honey facts

    This story utterly confuses ultrafiltration with common filtration. Ultrafiltration changes the fundamental nature, color, and flavor of honey. But filtration is common and expected by the nation’s consumers of honey — indeed the vast majority of honey sold in the U.S. is filtered. Without filtration, honey is opaque and quickly crystallizes. The vast majority of American consumers will not buy unfiltered honey. Without filtration, there are many impurities in honey. The vast majority of American customers will not buy unfiltered honey any more than they would raw milk. The simple fact is that USDA Grade A Honey has been filtered since at least the 1950s, with the highest grades of honey being those in which the dust and pollen particles are removed. And the Courts have repeatedly tossed out the lawsuits that were filed based on the notion that honey must contain pollen in order to be called honey. While I personally prefer the flavor of unfiltered honey, the fact is that filtered honey is USDA Grade A Honey and is preferred by the overwhelming majority of Americans. The consumer should be allowed to choose. The title of this story is correct.