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


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.