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caught up with Andrew about it because, this past week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with new “draft guidance” for the honey industry on “Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products.”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.”