In the last several months various stories have resulted in misunderstanding and confusion about honey and honey filtration, leading some readers to believe that any honey without pollen is not real honey.

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This is not true. Honey without pollen is still honey nutritionally and in flavor, and that is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies it as such.  This misunderstanding has also led to several class action lawsuits regarding purchases of honey without pollen.

  

The truth is that honey is made by honey bees from nectar of flowers and plants, not pollen.  Pollen grains may end up in the exposed honey in the hive through any number of incidental or accidental ways, but it is not used by honey bees to make honey. 

  

Consumers have varying opinions about their choice of honey type, flavor and origin.  There are many different kinds of honey available in the U.S. market, such as honey in the comb, liquid honey that is considered “raw”, creamed honey, as well as organic honey.   The majority of honey sold at retail in the U.S. every year, and preferred by most consumers, is the clear, golden liquid honey that has been strained or filtered to remove undesirable particles that make honey cloudy.  All honey crystallizes eventually; suspended particles (including pollen) and fine air bubbles in honey contribute to faster crystallization.  Filtering pollen and other particles out helps delay crystallization, allowing the honey to remain liquid for a much longer period than honey that has not been filtered.

   

According to the United States Standards, honey can be filtered to remove fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles and other materials found suspended in the honey1.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives higher grades for honey that has good clarity.  Importantly, honey that has been filtered to meet USDA’s grading standards may not have pollen, but it is still honey.

  

News stories have reported on  illegal activities such as circumvention of tariffs on imported honey, and there are claims that some dishonest foreign suppliers may be “ultrafiltering” their honey to clean it up or remove the small amounts of pollen grains, often used as a marker to identify the country of origin.  Ultrafiltering is not the same as filtering honey. Somewhere during the telling and retelling of these news stories, the term “ultrafiltered” became misused and confused with more traditional filtration methods used in the U.S. honey industry to produce clear, golden honey. 

 

Ultrafiltration, a totally different process, is a specific filtration method used in the food industry for pretreatment and purification.   It can filter particles smaller than 1/10 of a micron (a spider web is about 2 microns in diameter).    Pollen grains vary in size from about 5 to 200 microns, large enough to be filtered with more common filtration methods.

     

In contrast to the filtration methods used by many U.S. honey packers to meet USDA grading standards, ultrafiltration is a more complex process that results in a sweetener product.  The FDA has said this product should not be labeled as honey, and the National Honey Board supports this position.  Some have confused filtration and ultrafiltration, incorrectly applying FDA’s position on ultrafiltered honey to any honey without pollen.

  

The fact is, honey that has been filtered may not have pollen, but it is still honey by national standards and is preferred by many consumers.  

 

For more information on honey, I invite readers to visit the National Honey Board’s website at www.honey.com.

1 For decades, many U.S. honey packers have been filtering raw honey prior to bottling in accordance with USDA’s United States Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey (May 23, 1985).  According to section 52-1393 of the Standards , Filtered honey is honey of any type defined in these standards that has been filtered to the extent that all or most of the fine particles, pollen grains, air bubbles, or other materials normally found in suspension, have been removed.  Section 52.1394 of the Standards also says that Pollen grains in suspension contribute to the lack of clarity in filtered style.  

Bruce Boynton is CEO of the National Honey Board, a federal research and promotion board under USDA oversight that conducts research, marketing and promotion programs to help maintain and expand markets for honey and honey products.  The National Honey Board is not a regulatory agency nor does it have powers of enforcement.  The 10-member board, appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, represents producers (beekeepers), packers, importers and a marketing cooperative.

My interest in health and nutrition began some 30 years ago. At 19 I quit smoking and for the first time in my life put on some extra pounds. (I’m sure it had something to do with the Hershey chocolate bars I consumed to ward off each and every cigarette craving.) Anyway, these extra pounds motivated my investigation of weight loss diets and I was horrified to discover that everything I’d been consuming my entire life was in essence a physiological time bomb. Processed foods are bad for you? Who could have known? And how could this be? I mean, if processed foods hurt people, why are they allowed to be sold? Having always been an avid reader I was amazed to discover a world replete with nutritional information regarding diet and how to eat healthy. I slowly transformed my bad habits. I quit my job at a fast food restaurant and went to work in a vitamin store. Running replaced my affinity for cigarettes and my former assortment of junk food was nowhere to be found in the health food store I now regularly found myself. Studying food labels became the rule, and I shunned any artificial flavorings, colorings, chemicals or preservatives. I juiced, ate fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, yogurt and baked chicken and fish. Raw eggs, milk and cheese also became part of my new diet after I came across encouraging literature regarding their benefits. (Raw milk is legal in California, so its purchase only required a quick trip to the health food store.) My fervent dedication to eating well lasted for several years. When my husband entered my life, it became very difficult to maintain the purity of my diet. As time passed, I continued to eat healthier than most of my peers, but not as strict as I had for those few years in my late teens and early 20s. A search for possible answers to ADD After college, my husband and I both entered the field of education. I work as a school counselor and he teaches government and economics. In 1995 we bought our second home and in December of 1998 we adopted our son Christopher Chase Martin. Life was good. At approximately four years of age, our son demonstrated signs of Attention Deficit Disorder without hyperactivity. He was a very bright child. He could recite the alphabet at 17 months, but could not stay focused when playing board games or any activity requiring focusing or fine motor skills like coloring and writing letters. He would tell me that it was too hard. Kindergarten confirmed my suspicions. Homework time was filled with frustration, which typically led to meltdowns. He could not complete homework without one parent sitting with him to keep him focused and on task. At our first parent/teacher conference, his teacher informed us about his focusing issues in the classroom. ADD is caused by a dopamine deficiency that occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. ADD medication increases the dopamine level in that part of the brain, allowing it to work properly. I felt that Chris was too young to be placed on stimulant medication (a form of amphetamine) so I searched for natural ways to increase his dopamine levels. Some say children with ADD should avoid artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, white flour and white sugar. Chris rarely consumed any of these items. Reducing sugar of all kinds, including juice and even honey, is strongly encouraged. However, the significant challenge we faced was removing dairy and wheat from his diet, a must due to the discovery that many children and adults with ADD have food sensitivities to these products. Chris is a picky eater and all of his favorite foods contained dairy and wheat. I started by reducing wheat-based products and replacing them with baked, gluten-free products. Important vitamins and minerals, including more omega 3s, were added and we immediately noticed a profound effect on Chris. Within two weeks he did homework without the normal fuss and his handwriting improved dramatically. The teacher reported that his on-task behavior had also improved in the classroom. All was not perfect, however. A couple of years passed and Chris was still beset with several symptoms of ADD, although nowhere near as severe as they had been. He was slower than other children in completing his school work–but he finished it. He still needed help with homework and one parent would always assist in that regard. Extensive writing assignments were difficult because he couldn’t stay focused long enough to get everything he wanted to say on paper. To accommodate this weakness, he would verbally communicate what he wanted to say and one parent would type it. Could raw milk remedy our dairy quandary? During this time, Chris also faced congestion issues, waking with a stuffy nose and a cough. These symptoms usually dissipated as the day progressed but it did become his normal day. It was disconcerting. I was convinced it was related to dairy consumption but I was semi-paralyzed by the thought of removing his beloved organic pasteurized milk, yogurt and cheese. I was at a loss. If I removed dairy from his diet, what he would eat? The dairy dilemma was nagging at me until one particular trip to our local health food store. There, in the store window, I saw a poster that would change our lives forever. Organic Pasture Dairy Company was advertising raw milk, suggesting relief from lactose intolerance, digestive disorders and asthma. I remembered reading (30 years ago) that raw milk was somehow healthier than pasteurized milk. I began to wonder about raw milk again — was it the answer to our son’s dairy quandary? If he consumed raw milk would it relieve his congestion? I didn’t purchase the milk that day because I also remembered the reason I had stopped drinking raw milk: a Salmonella outbreak involving Alta Dena Dairy that resulted in a recall. Food poisoning is far more serious than I had imagined, but I must admit I was as na√Øve as most regarding the seriousness of such pathogens. My notion was that the worst one might expect was a stint of diarrhea and vomiting; I had no idea these pathogens could kill you. Every week after seeing the sign I would stop at the raw milk shelf and consider buying it for Chris. Several times I picked it up only to put it back. Time passed. In the meantime, I had found Dr. Joe Mercola’s website and began subscribing to his newsletter. To my surprise, random articles about the purported health benefits of raw milk populated his site. As I read them, I unfortunately started to feel at ease with the idea of drinking raw milk. I was finally convinced after visiting the Organic Pastures website. I found pleasing claims describing their cows, how they were fed, how their milk was regularly tested and how they had never found a pathogen in all the years they had been in business. Their website also stated that if cows consumed grass they wouldn’t harbor pathogens. OPDC cows were advertised as being 100 percent pasture fed. They even posted all of their test results on their website and based upon this information I believed that the milk they produced would be safe for my son to consume. In mid-August, 2006, I purchased a quart of raw milk. I wondered if Chris would like it. Chris’s ordeal from E. coli infection begins Chris drank raw milk for approximately two weeks. The last bottle he would drink I bought on a Friday and by Monday evening I noticed it was already turning sour. I remember feeling frustrated that I had paid so much money for something that soured so quickly. I dumped the remaining milk down the drain and threw the bottle in the kitchen trash can. The next evening, September 5, Chris returned home from his martial arts workout with a headache and low grade fever. He did not attend school the next day, due to his lethargic state. He slept most of the day. That evening he felt better and ate a good dinner, but it didn’t last. Later that night, the diarrhea started. We thought it best he stay home one more day. His second day was filled with repeat trips to the bathroom and by early evening we noticed blood in his stool. This discovery prompted an immediate trip to the emergency room. Within an hour of arriving at the hospital, Chris became severely weak. He began vomiting regularly, experienced no relief from the diarrhea and was now in pain. He became so weak he could not lift himself onto the bedside toilet and required our assistance each time. For the next five days, both day and night, we witnessed our son struggle every 15 to 30 minutes with these ceaseless discharges. Nothing could prepare a parent for this kind of agony as we watched helplessly, praying it would stop. It was a heart wrenching. Upon entering the emergency room we had no way of knowing that we would not return home or go to work for two months. Chris had a severe case of E.coli 0157:H7 food poisoning that developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Our son fought a war which he almost lost, against an invisible enemy. The damage done by this bacterium is incomprehensible. Videos about Chris’ experience can be found on the Real Raw Milk Facts and CDC websites. From RealRawMilkFacts.com Soon it was discovered that five other children had become ill with the same E.coli infection and one other child also developed HUS. Interviews with the families involved determined that the only common food the children had consumed came from Organic Pastures Dairy Company. Another outbreak linked to Organic Pastures milk In November 2011, a repeat outbreak occurred, this time infecting five children with E.coli 0157:H7. Three of these children developed HUS. Once again, interviews determined that the only common food consumed among the children came from Organic Pastures Dairy Company. For those of you unfamiliar with the source of contamination, let me paint a graphic picture: cow feces are in the milk. Drinking contaminated raw milk, as happened to my son, can make you very ill and even cost you your life. Bottom line is that cows defecate in huge quantities without much consideration to their personal sanitation. Also consider the juxtaposition and proximity of a cow’s anus and teats, coupled with the fact that they lounge in their own feces and defecate while being milked. Beginning to get the picture? Mistakes during and after the milking process do happen. That is why raw milk is considered a high risk food and why in 1924 “grade A pasteurization” became recommended federal policy. It is all about the feces. So if raw milk is a high risk food, why would someone choose raw milk for their children? There are many moms, like myself, whose children suffer from ADD, autism, asthma, eczema, digestive disorders or food allergies. We struggle to find answers to help our children. According to the CDC, approximately 43 percent of children have some sort of chronic medical issue and that number does not include children who have cancer. Most parents will turn to their medical doctor for answers and if that doesn’t work, some will hope to find a remedy through nutritional alternatives. I assume most would agree that eating fewer processed foods and eating more whole foods is a sound nutritional path. Sadly, when reading about nutrition there is no escaping information about the Standard American Diet (also referred to as SAD), which consists of processed foods filled with hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined white flour and sugar, artificial flavors and colors, MSG, and preservatives. Our kids gorge on sodas, sugary cereals, French fries, potato chips, cookies, cakes and myriad fast food choices. Much of this food comes from a box, package or can and is loaded with chemicals few recognize or can pronounce. Also, there are many different food crusades emerging across the nation: the Traditional Foods, Organic Foods, Locally Grown, Vegan and Food Freedom — just to name a few. They all share the desire to escape eating mass-produced industrialized food and do not consider food from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, also known as a CAFOs, a healthy practice. Milk produced by cows raised in CAFOs is considered by some health experts to be “sick milk.” The cows are raised in horribly crowded conditions, they are fed genetically modified soy and corn along with low doses of antibiotics to keep them from becoming ill, and then they are injected with RBGH, a growth hormone, to coerce the cows into producing more milk. After this milk is harvested, it is ultra-pasteurized to kill loitering bacteria and homogenized to keep the fat from rising. The milk currently sitting on our grocery shelves is not the same milk that our grandparents and great-grandparents consumed. This milk is processed milk. Would you eat raw poultry? This leads to confusion. The act of heating milk to kill dangerous bacteria gets mixed into all the other information about how our modern day milk is produced. Does the pasteurization process alone, heating the milk, alter its nutritional benefits? We cook poultry, fish, meat, vegetables, and bake a variety of foods and they are still considered to be nutritious, unprocessed foods. Could you imagine eating a casserole or chicken that has not been cooked? The question, is does the simple act of heating milk render it processed? The Weston A. Price Foundation thinks so. Dr. Weston Price was a dentist in the 1930s. He traveled the world studying traditional cultures. He found common variables in all traditional diets that promoted health, especially fats. He observed health consequences for those eating processed foods and a renewal of health when a traditional diet was re-introduced. The Weston A. Price Foundation notes this distinction about milk: pasteurized milk is processed and raw milk is fresh, unprocessed, and when consumed in its natural state is full of life producing enzymes and probiotics. WAPF believes that the pasteurization process destroys the nutrients as well as alters the protein structure of the milk. Their mission is to have raw milk sales legal in all 50 states and they do not want the government regulating its production. Misleading consumers to think raw milk is safe WAPF also professes that cows fed all-grass diets cannot harbor pathogens and that raw milk possesses the inherent ability to kill pathogens. They believe that if you know your farmer and the milk is not produced by a CAFO, the milk is safe to drink. This misinformation regarding raw milk leads well-intentioned consumers to believe that raw milk is safe to drink. WAPF is organized in every state and their goal is to encourage raw milk consumption. Their website lists a multitude of illnesses that supposedly can be cured simply by drinking fresh, unprocessed milk. Infants and children are specifically targeted for consumption of this enchanted elixir. Unfortunately, this generation has lost touch with one important notion: why was pasteurization implemented in the first place? We are far removed from the horrors that occurred 100 years ago. Raw milk seems an easy solution to many physical ailments and it seems safe because few children are currently dying from its consumption. But I know the horror of the risk one takes when consuming raw milk, intimately. Had my son’s face-off with raw milk happened even 30 years ago, he would have died. Modern medicine and machinery (ventilators, kidney dialysis, blood, plasma and platelet transfusions, antibiotics, narcotics, intravenous nutrition and surgeries) ultimately saved his life. So let’s return to the original question: why would someone drink raw milk? For over a decade, the Weston A. Price Foundation has been proselytizing about the perceived health benefits of raw milk consumption, which also happens to coincide with times of economic hardship. Family farms are disappearing in an environment when you have a growing population becoming increasingly aware of the health costs of eating processed foods and they want to support their local farmer, which becomes the perfect marriage for raw milk production and consumption. Consumers are led to believe they are purchasing a healthier, unprocessed food and at the same time the feel good about economically supporting their local farmer. But like all marriages, they tend to lose their charm when someone becomes seriously ill. Since January of 2010, there have been 23 raw milk outbreaks with 300 illnesses. Disseminating dangerous myths The choice to give my son raw milk was tragic. And at the time, I didn’t know there was a raw milk movement in the United States. This movement is led by the likes of: Sally Fallon Morrell, Dr. Ted Beals, Dr. Ron Schmid, and Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy. This band of zealots would have you believe that the foundation of good health can only be found in a bottle of raw milk. Sally Fallon Morrell is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation. She owns a publishing company called New Trends Publishing, Inc. and has co-authored a book titled “Nourishing Traditions,” which focuses on eating the traditional, unprocessed foods of our ancestors. She encourages pregnant women to consume raw milk, and heartily endorses feeding it to infants and children. Within the movement, she has received accolades for her raw milk infant formula. Dr. Ted Beals, a retired pathologist, tries to use his credentials to give legitimacy to the movement. When state legislatures consider bills to legalize raw milk, Dr. Beals shows up as a witness. While he acknowledges that outbreaks caused by raw milk do occur, he says other foods have caused more illnesses. He does not believe raw milk is a high-risk food. “The Untold Story of Milk,” by Dr. Ron Schmid, regarded as the raw milk bible, was published by Sally Fallon Morrell. It presents an overview of the history of pasteurization and outlines all the reasons people should be drinking raw milk instead of pasteurized milk. Three dangerous myths are disseminated in this book: grass fed cows don’t harbor pathogens, raw milk has innate properties that kill pathogens and if you know your farmer, the milk is safe. Mark McAfee owns the largest raw milk dairy in the United States and is a super salesman for the raw milk movement. He is a dynamic speaker and a passionate educator about the perceived health benefits of raw milk. He hosts “Share the Secret” educational forums throughout California encouraging people to consume raw milk, and is commonly seen at raw milk rallies across the country. However, his sales pitch for raw milk fails to include information about the two raw milk outbreaks at his dairy, both involving acute E. coli 0157:H7 infections, resulting in 11 seriously ill children, five of whom experienced kidney failure. And finally, there is my friend David Gumpert, host of The Complete Patient Blog and author of “The Raw Milk Revolution.” His blog provides a forum for raw milk advocates, who believe in their constitutional right to food freedom, to voice their opinion. I refer to David and myself as bookends in the movement. He advocates for the family farmer’s right to sell milk without pasteurizing it, and I advocate for the victims who have been injured by raw milk and try to warn future victims about the potentially serious health consequences they might encounter. The Weston A. Price Foundation has chapters all across the country and says its numbers have grown dramatically in the past decade. Members believe in the philosophy of Weston A. Price, they eat according to the information provided in the book Nourishing Traditions and they believe the myths about raw milk written in the Untold Story of Milk. These growing chapters grind incessantly for the legalization of raw milk in states where it is currently illegal; in states where raw milk is legal, their aim is to relax existing regulations to their benefit. Sally Fallon, Ted Beals and Mark McAfee persistently advocate in state legislatures across the country regarding the perceived health benefits of raw milk. Victimized again by falsehoods My experience with these characters has been appalling. My son’s near-death experience was hell to pay for my mistake, but I was not prepared for the second victimization. Rather than acknowledge the tremendous harm done in the first Organic Pastures outbreak, and then search for the reasons this happened to avoid future problems, they chose a different, rather slimy path to muddy the truth and deflect any culpability. Their reaction was morbid. The lies began immediately about our son’s case and some of these falsehoods could be found on the Weston A. Price Foundation website. I wrote to Sally Fallon requesting that she remove the distortions. Instead of honoring my appeal, she injected these pathetic fabrications into Ron Schmid’s updated version of his book. This whole matter was very twisted and patently shows how they would hawk their souls to convince their followers that raw milk is always safe to drink. People who choose raw milk for themselves or their families believe they are making an informed decision. They believe the benefits outweigh the risks. They have read the Schmid’s book or literature endorsed by WAPF. However, a truly informed decision should also address the potential health consequences. Until both sides are presented and considered, any decision to consume raw milk is based on propaganda and ignorance. I was ignorant and I have spoken to many others who have become ill or who have had children that became ill after consuming contaminated raw milk. Sadly, they all believed the risks were minimal, which brings me to bottom line: would any mother’s choose raw milk for their children if they knew that it could seriously harm or even kill them? Never! Consumers should understand the risks With the abundance of literature about raw milk proselytizing its unproven benefits, how are consumers to learn about the dangers? When I purchased my raw milk it would have been nice to have some safety information to counteract the large poster in the store window advertising the alleged benefits. Perhaps a sign at the shelf where the milk sat would have helped me discern fact from fiction at Organic Pastures website. Warning labels are required on raw milk sold in California, but it is located in very small print on the back of the bottle. I never saw the warning message nor did I know to look for it. In states where raw milk is sold in grocery stores, at farmers markets, or even on the farm, I would like to see this warning label in large, bold, conspicuous print: Warning: Unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk, is a raw agricultural product and may contain harmful bacteria (not limited to E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Salmonella) and can lead to serious injury and even death. Pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and persons with lowered resistance to disease (immune compromised) have higher risk for harm, which may include bloody diarrhea, vomiting, fever, dehydration, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, Guillian-Barre Syndrome, Reactive Arthritis, Irritable, Bowel Syndrome, miscarriage, or death. Note: Raw Milk must be kept refrigerated at 40 degrees at all times. This warning label would offset safety misinformation and give the unsuspecting consumer a fighting chance at becoming informed about the potential hazards lurking in raw milk. No danger in removing dairy from diets It has been nearly six years since I made the catastrophic decision to give my son raw milk. He would have been spared tremendous suffering had I simply followed my instincts to simply remove all dairy from his diet instead of trying raw milk. As it turns out, when Chris consumes dairy products, the casein protein delivered to his blood stream works as an opiate on the brain. In other words, this protein works like a drug and causes Chris to become unfocused. His body has a negative reaction to both casein peptides and whey protein in milk. Once removed, his ability to focus greatly improved. He no longer needs a parent during homework and all morning congestion is gone. My son improved from the absence of store bought milk, not from the addition of raw milk. A word of wisdom to other parents whose children may have a negative reaction to store bought pasteurized milk, whether allergies, asthma, autism, ADD, ear infections, eczema or digestive issues: try removing all dairy products and see if the symptoms improve. There is no risk in removing dairy products. The calcium and vitamins found in milk can easily be attained from other foods or supplements during your experiment. One final thought about Sally Fallon: despite my believing she is completely irresponsible promoting the consumption of raw milk to infants and children, her cookbook “Nourishing Traditions” does have excellent information. This book is like having your grandmother in the kitchen passing down generations of food preparation wisdom. Food fermentation, both dairy and vegetable, is a focus for obtaining beneficial bacteria. Sally Fallon writes that people can obtain beneficial bacteria from kefir and yogurt made with pasteurized milk, so I’m not sure how or why the hyper-focus on raw milk emerged. So, if you are looking for a healthier way to eat, follow the suggestions in her book and just disregard everything you read about raw milk. Don’t profit from poisoning people I would like to say something about supporting local dairy farmers. I have empathy for the plight of the small family farmer, but it can’t come at the cost of harming people. Both raw milk farmers and consumers need to be educated about the risks of raw milk consumption. Poisoning people with raw milk is not going to economically help the local farmer. Feeding the cows grass and treating them humanely is not going to prevent cow feces from getting in the milk. If you want to support your local raw milk farmer, home pasteurization is one solution. People can learn how to pasteurize their own milk using a home pasteurizer or double boiler. If you suffer from lactose intolerance, take the digestive enzyme lactase. The perceived benefits of consuming raw milk will never outweigh the risk of harming yourself or your child. And finally, my son still eats an organic, unprocessed diet without dairy products. In fact, no one in our family consumes dairy products. It was difficult making the switch, but well worth it. In the past year, no one in our family has been sick and Chris is hoping to receive a perfect attendance award at the end of the year. He is a happy, healthy teen who has yet to have a cavity, further evidence to never believe that the foundation of good health can only be found in a bottle of raw milk.

A series of class action lawsuits has been filed in Florida against major food retailers who allegedly sell honey that may not be “honey” because it does not contain pollen.

Five Florida residents are bringing suits against four different grocery chains – Publix Super Markets, Inc., Target Corporation, Walgreen Co. and Aldi, Inc. – that all reportedly carry ultra-filtered honey under their own house brands. 

Ultra-filtration is a special process by which honey is heated and then forced through tiny filters that don’t let pollen through. This process is different from traditional honey filtration, which uses bigger filters and is designed only to weed out visible contaminants such as bee parts, wax and debris. 

In removing the pollen from honey, ultra-filtration essentially removes its footprint. The resulting product cannot be traced back to its source to determine whether it came from a legitimate supplier or one with a reputation for adulterated products. 

honey-comb-406.jpgWhen Food Safety News investigated ultra-filtration last year, it found that over 3/4 of honey sold in U.S. grocery stores lacks pollen. 

Florida is one of a handful of states that has set a honey standard dictating what qualities a product needs in order to be called honey. Anything labeled as “honey” must contain pollen, says the standard. This rule gives legal clout to those who want to see pollen-free honey labeled as something other than honey. 

The same clout does not exist at the federal level, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue a set of standards for honey, despite demands from both industry and Congress that it do so. 

“Honey that has pollen should be called ‘honey,’ and honey that’s been filtered so that all the pollen has been removed should be called something else,” says attorney J. Andrew Meyer of Morgan & Morgan, who along with Jason Kellogg of Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman filed the class action suits. 

Initial tests commissioned by the firm have shown that the honey brands involved in the suit do not contain pollen, he told Food Safety News.

Meyer says pollen-less honey should be treated like any other fake food in that it can’t be called the real deal. 

“When you see fake cheese slices at the store, they’re called ‘cheese food,’ ” he explains. “Some people don’t mind that. It’s less expensive. But it differentiates itself from cheese, which we know is made with milk.” 

In the same way, he says, truly “raw” or “natural” honey should be differentiated from ultra-filtered honey through labeling. 

In Florida, the law gives the state authority to see that labels on the container accurately reflect what’s inside. 

Honey producers have argued that ultra-filtration is necessary in order to give honey the clear look consumers like and prevent it from crystallizing. 

But Meyer says this justification is not recognized in the state’s honey standard and will likely not hold up in court. 

Meyer hopes the cases brought in Florida will spark similar litigation in states that have honey standards, and legislation regarding honey in those that don’t. 

“What needs to happen is consumer education,” he says. “That’s really the thrust of our lawsuit – that there be truth in labeling and consumers understand what they’re buying.”

Brands in question include Publix’s private labels “Orange Blossom Honey” and “Pure Clover Honey,” Target’s “Market Pantry” and “Archer Farms” brands, Walgreen’s brand honey and its “Nice” honey, and Aldi’s “Berryhill Clover Honey.” 

Meyer and Kellogg estimate that there may be thousands to tens of thousands of consumers who purchased pollen-free honey sold under any of the brand names in question over the past four years. 

 

More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce, according to testing done exclusively for Food Safety News.

The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled “honey.”

The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies.

The food safety divisions of the  World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.

honey-without-pollen-food-safety-news1.jpgIn the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. However, the FDA isn’t checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.

Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey. It is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years.

Food Safety News decided to test honey sold in various outlets after its earlier investigation found U.S. groceries flooded with Indian honey banned in Europe as unsafe because of contamination with antibiotics, heavy metal and a total lack of pollen which prevented tracking its origin.

Food Safety News purchased more than 60 jars, jugs and plastic bears of honey in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

The contents were analyzed for pollen by Vaughn Bryant, a professor at Texas A&M University and one of the nation’s premier melissopalynologists, or investigators of pollen in honey.

Bryant, who is director of the Palynology Research Laboratory, found that among the containers of honey provided by Food Safety News:

•76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.

•100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.

•77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.

•100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald’s and KFC had the pollen removed.

•Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.

And if you have to buy at major grocery chains, the analysis found that your odds are somewhat better of getting honey that wasn’t ultra-filtered if you buy brands labeled as organic. Out of seven samples tested, five (71 percent) were heavy with pollen. All of the organic honey was produced in Brazil, according to the labels.

The National Honey Board, a federal research and promotion organization under USDA oversight, says the bulk of foreign honey (at least 60 percent or more) is sold to the food industry for use in baked goods, beverages, sauces and processed foods.  Food Safety News did not examine these products for this story.

Some U.S. honey packers didn’t want to talk about how they process their merchandise.

One who did was Bob Olney, of Honey Tree Inc., in Michigan, who sells its Winnie the Pooh honey in Walmart stores.  Bryant’s analysis of the contents of the container made in Winnie’s image found that the pollen had been removed.

Olney says that his honey came from suppliers in Montana, North Dakota and Alberta. “It was filtered in processing because North American shoppers want their honey crystal clear,” he said.

The packers of Silverbow Honey added: “The grocery stores want processed honey as it lasts longer on the shelves.”

However, most beekeepers say traditional filtering used by most will catch bee parts, wax, debris from the hives and other visible contaminants but will leave the pollen in place.

Ernie Groeb, the president and CEO of Groeb Farms Inc., which calls itself “the world’s largest packer of honey,” says he makes no specific requirement to the pollen content of the 85 million pounds of honey his company buys.

Groeb sells retail under the Miller’s brand and says he buys 100 percent pure honey, but does not “specify nor do we require that the pollen be left in or be removed.”

He says that there are many different filtering methods used by beekeepers and honey packers.

“We buy basically what’s considered raw honey. We trust good suppliers. That’s what we rely on,” said Groeb, whose headquarters is in Onsted, Mich.

Why Remove the Pollen?

Removal of all pollen from honey “makes no sense” and is completely contrary to marketing the highest quality product possible, Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told Food Safety News.

food-safety-news-good-honey-sample.jpg“I don’t know of any U.S. producer that would want to do that. Elimination of all pollen can only be achieved by ultra-filtering and this filtration process does nothing but cost money and diminish the quality of the honey,” Jensen said.

“In my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it’s even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law,” he added.

Richard Adee, whose 80,000 hives in multiple states produce 7 million pounds of honey each year, told Food Safety News that “honey has been valued by millions for centuries for its flavor and nutritional value and that is precisely what is completely removed by the ultra-filtration process.”

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it,” he says.

“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,” Adee added.

The Sioux Honey Association, who says it’s America’s largest supplier, declined repeated requests for comments on ultra-filtration, what Sue Bee does with its foreign honey and whether it’s u
ltra-filtered when they buy it. The co-op markets retail under Sue Bee, Clover Maid, Aunt Sue, Natural Pure and many store brands.

Eric Wenger, director of quality services for Golden Heritage Foods, the nation’s third largest packer, said his company takes every precaution not to buy laundered Chinese honey.

“We are well aware of the tricks being used by some brokers to sell honey that originated in China and laundering it in a second country by filtering out the pollen and other adulterants,” said Wenger, whose firm markets 55 million pounds of honey annually under its Busy Bee brand, store brands, club stores and food service.

“The brokers know that if there’s an absence of all pollen in the raw honey we won’t buy it, we won’t touch it, because without pollen we have no way to verify its origin.”

He said his company uses “extreme care” including pollen analysis when purchasing foreign honey, especially from countries like India, Vietnam and others that have or have had “business arrangements” with Chinese honey producers.

Golden Heritage, Wenger said, then carefully removes all pollen from the raw honey when it’s processed to extend shelf life, but says, “as we see it, that is not ultra-filtration.

“There is a significant difference between filtration, which is a standard industry practice intended to create a shelf-stable honey, and ultra-filtration, which is a deceptive, illegal, unethical practice.”

Some of the foreign and state standards that are being instituted can be read to mean different things, Wenger said “but the confusion can be eliminated and we can all be held to the same appropriate standards for quality if FDA finally establishes the standards we’ve all wanted for so long.”

Groeb says he has urged FDA to take action as he also “totally supports a standard of Identity for honey. It will help everyone have common ground as to what pure honey truly is!”

What’s Wrong With Chinese Honey?

Chinese honey has long had a poor reputation in the U.S., where – in 2001 – the Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff import tariffs or taxes to stop the Chinese from flooding the marketplace with dirt-cheap, heavily subsidized honey, which was forcing American beekeepers out of business.

To avoid the dumping tariffs, the Chinese quickly began transshipping honey to several other countries, then laundering it by switching the color of the shipping drums, the documents and labels to indicate a bogus but tariff-free country of origin for the honey.

Most U.S. honey buyers knew about the Chinese actions because of the sudden availability of lower cost honey, and little was said.

The FDA — either because of lack of interest or resources — devoted little effort to inspecting imported honey. Nevertheless, the agency had occasionally either been told of, or had stumbled upon, Chinese honey contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics which are dangerous, even fatal, to a very small percentage of the population.

Mostly, the adulteration went undetected. Sometimes FDA caught it.

In one instance 10 years ago, contaminated Chinese honey was shipped to Canada and then on to a warehouse in Houston where it was sold to jelly maker J.M. Smuckers and the national baker Sara Lee.

By the time the FDA said it realized the Chinese honey was tainted, Smuckers had sold 12,040 cases of individually packed honey to Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Sara Lee said it may have been used in a half-million loaves of bread that were on store shelves.

Eventually, some honey packers became worried about what they were pumping into the plastic bears and jars they were selling. They began using in-house or private labs to test for honey diluted with inexpensive high fructose corn syrup or 13 other illegal sweeteners or for the presence of illegal antibiotics. But even the most sophisticated of these tests would not pinpoint the geographic source of the honey.

food-safety-news-Vaughn-Bryant-honey-tester.jpgFood scientists and honey specialists say pollen is the only foolproof fingerprint to a honey’s source.

Federal investigators working on criminal indictments and a very few conscientious packers were willing to pay stiff fees to have the pollen in their honey analyzed for country of origin. That complex, multi-step analysis is done by fewer than five commercial laboratories in the world.

But, Customs and Justice Department investigators told Food Safety News that whenever U.S. food safety or criminal experts verify a method to identify potentially illegal honey – such as analyzing the pollen – the laundering operators find a way to thwart it, such as ultra-filtration.

The U.S. imported 208 million pounds of honey over the past 18 months. Almost 60 percent came from Asian countries – traditional laundering points for Chinese honey. This included 45 million pounds from India alone.

And websites still openly offer brokers who will illegally transship honey and scores of other tariff-protected goods from China to the U.S.

FDA’s Lack of Action

The Food and Drug Administration weighed into the filtration issue years ago.

“The FDA has sent a letter to industry stating that the FDA does not consider ‘ultra-filtered’ honey to be honey,” agency press officer Tamara Ward told Food Safety News.

She went on to explain: “We have not halted any importation of honey because we have yet to detect ‘ultra-filtered’ honey. If we do detect ‘ultra-filtered’ honey we will refuse entry.”

Many in the honey industry and some in FDA’s import office say they doubt that FDA checks more than 5 percent of all foreign honey shipments.

For three months, the FDA promised Food Safety News to make its “honey expert” available to explain what that statement meant.  It never happened. Further, the federal food safety authorities refused offers to examine Bryant’s analysis and explain what it plans to do about the selling of honey it says is adulterated because of the removal of pollen, a key ingredient.

Major food safety standard-setting organizations such as the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius, the European Union and the European Food Safety Authority say the intentional removal of pollen is dangerous because it eliminates the ability of consumers and law enforcement to determine the actual origin of the honey.

“The removal of pollen will make the determination of botanical and geographic origin of honey impossible and circumvents the ability to trace and identify the actual source of the honey,” says the European Union Directive on Honey.

The Codex commission’s Standard for Honey, which sets principles for the international trade in food, has ruled that “No pollen or constituent particular to honey may be removed except where this is unavoidable in the removal of foreign matter. . .”  It even suggested what size mesh to use (not smaller than 0.2mm or 200 micron) to filter out unwanted debris — bits of wax and wood from the frames, and parts of bees — but retain 95 percent of all the pollen.

Food Safety News asked Bryant to analyze foreign honey packaged in Italy, Hungary, Greece, Tasmania and New Zealand to try to get a feeling for whether the Codex standards for pollen were being heeded overseas. The samples from every country but Greece were loaded with various types and amounts of pollen. Honey from Greece had none.

You’ll Never Know

In many cases, consumers would have an easier time deciphering state secrets than pinning down where the honey they’re buying in groceries actually came from.

The majority of the honey that Bryant’s analysis found to have no pollen was packaged as store brands by outside companies but carried a label unique to the food chain. For example, Giant Eagle has a ValuTime label on some of its honey. In Target it’s called Market Pantry, Naturally Preferred  and others. Walmart uses Great Value and Safeway just says Safeway. Wegmans also uses its own name.

Who actually bottled these store brands is often a mystery.

A noteworthy exception is Golden Heritage of Hillsboro, Kan. The company either puts its name or decipherable initials on the back of store brands it fills.

“We’re never bashful about discussing the products we put out” said Wenger, the company’s quality director. “We want people to know who to contact if they have questions.”

The big grocery chains were no help in identifying the sources of the honey they package in their store brands.

For example, when Food Safety News was hunting the source of nine samples that came back as ultra-filtered from QFC, Fred Myer and King Sooper, the various customer service numbers all led to representatives of Kroger, which owns them all. The replies were identical: “We can’t release that information. It is proprietary.”

food-safety-news-Sue-Bee-honey-ad.jpgOne of the customer service representatives said the contact address on two of the honeys being questioned was in Sioux City, Iowa, which is where Sioux Bee’s corporate office is located.

Jessica Carlson, a public relations person for Target, waved the proprietary banner and also refused to say whether it was Target management or the honey suppliers that wanted the source of the honey kept from the public.

Similar non-answers came from representatives of Safeway, Walmart and Giant Eagle.

The drugstores weren’t any more open with the sources of their house brands of honey. A Rite Aid representative said “if it’s not marked made in China, than it’s made in the United States.” She didn’t know who made it but said “I’ll ask someone.”

Rite Aid, Walgreen and CVS have yet to supply the information.

Only two smaller Pacific Northwest grocery chains – Haggen and Metropolitan Market – both selling honey without pollen, weren’t bashful about the source of their honey. Haggen said right off that its brand comes from Golden Heritage. Metropolitan Market said its honey – Western Family – is packed by Bee Maid Honey, a co-op of beekeepers from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

Pollen? Who Cares?

Why should consumers care if their honey has had its pollen removed?

“Raw honey is thought to have many medicinal properties,” says Kathy Egan, dietitian at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.  “Stomach ailments, anemia and allergies are just a few of the conditions that may be improved by consumption of unprocessed honey.”

But beyond pollen’s reported enzymes, antioxidants and well documented anti-allergenic benefits, a growing population of natural food advocates just don’t want their honey messed with.

There is enormous variety among honeys. They range in color from glass-clear to a dark mahogany and in consistency from watery to chunky to a crystallized solid. It’s the plants and flowers where the bees forage for nectar that will determine the significant difference in the taste, aroma and color of what the bees produce. It is the processing that controls the texture.

Food historians say that in the 1950s the typical grocery might have offered three or four different brands of honey.  Today, a fair-sized store will offer 40 to 50 different types, flavors and sources of honey out of the estimated 300 different honeys made in the U.S.. And with the attractiveness of natural food and the locavore movement, honey’s popularity is burgeoning. Unfortunately, with it comes the potential for fraud.

Concocting a sweet-tasting syrup out of cane, corn or beet sugar, rice syrup or any of more than a dozen sweetening agents is a great deal easier, quicker and far less expensive than dealing with the natural brew of bees.

However, even the most dedicated beekeeper can unknowingly put incorrect information on a honey jar’s label.

Bryant has examined nearly 2,000 samples of honey sent in by beekeepers, honey importers, and ag officials checking commercial brands off store shelves. Types include premium honey such as “buckwheat, tupelo, sage, orange blossom, and sourwood” produced in Florida, North Carolina, California, New York and Virginia and “fireweed” from Alaska.

“Almost all were incorrectly labeled based on their pollen and nectar contents,” he said.

Out of the 60 plus samples that Bryant tested for Food Safety News, the absolute most flavorful said “blackberry” on the label. When Bryant concluded his examination of the pollen in this sample he found clover and wildflowers clearly outnumbering a smattering of grains of blackberry pollen.

For the most part we are not talking about intentional fraud here. Contrary to their most fervent wishes, beekeepers can’t control where their bees actually forage any more than they can keep the tides from changing. They offer their best guess on the predominant foliage within flying distance of the hives.

“I think we need a truth in labeling law in the U.S. as they have in other countries,” Bryant added.

FDA Ignores Pleas

No one can say for sure why the FDA has ignored repeated pleas from Congress, beekeepers and the honey industry to develop a U.S. standard for identification for honey.

Nancy Gentry owns the small Cross Creek Honey Company in Interlachen, Fla., and she isn’t worried about the quality of the honey she sells.

“I harvest my own honey. We put the frames in an extractor, spin it out, strain it, and it goes into a jar. It’s honey the way bees intended,” Gentry said.

But the negative stories on the discovery of tainted and bogus honey raised her fears for the public’s perception of honey.

food-safety-news-honey-samples-tested.jpgShe spent months of studying what the rest of the world was doing to protect consumers from tainted honey and questioning beekeepers and industry on what was needed here. Gentry became the leading force in crafting language for Florida to develop the nation’s first standard for identification for honey.

In July 2009, Florida adopted the standard and placed its Division of Food Safety in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in charge of enforcing it.  It’s since been followed by California, Wisconsin and North Carolina and is somewhere in the state legislative or regulatory maze in Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Kansas, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and others.

John Ambrose’s battle for a national definition goes back 36 years. He said the issue is of great importance to North Carolina because it has more beekeepers than any other state in the country.

He and others tried to convince FDA that a single national standard for honey to help prevent adulterated honey from being sold was needed. The agency promised him it would be on the books within two years.

“But that never happened,” said Ambrose, a professor and entomologist at North Carolina State University and apiculturist, or bee expert. North Carolina followed Florida’s lead and passed its own identification standards last year.

Ambrose, who was co-chair of the team that drafted the state beekeeper association’s honey standards says the language is very simple, “Our standard says that nothing can be added or removed from the honey. So in other words, if somebody removes the pollen, or adds moisture or corn syrup or table sugar, that’s adulteration,” Ambrose told Food Safety News.

But still, he says he’s asked all the time how to ensure that you’re buying quality honey.  “The fact is, unless you’re buying from a beekeeper, you’re at risk,” was his uncomfortably blunt reply.

Eric Silva, counsel for the American Honey Producers Association said the standard is a simple but essential tool in ensuring the quality and safety of honey consumed by millions of Americans each year.

“Without it, the FDA and their trade enforcement counterparts are severely limited in their ability to combat the flow of illicit and potentially dangerous honey into this country,” Silva told Food Safety News.

It’s not just beekeepers, consumers and the industry that FDA officials either ignore or slough off with comments that they’re too busy.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer is one of more than 20 U.S. senators and members of Congress of both parties who have asked the FDA repeatedly to create a federal “pure honey” standard, similar to what the rest of the world has established.

They get the same answer that Ambrose got in 1975:  “Any day now.”

—————-

See “Top Pollen Detective Finds Honey a Sticky Business” on Food Safety News.

A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals.  A Food Safety News investigation has documented that millions of pounds of honey banned as unsafe in dozens of countries are being imported and sold here in record quantities.

And the flow of Chinese honey continues despite assurances from the Food and Drug Administration and other federal officials that the hundreds of millions of pounds reaching store shelves were authentic and safe following the widespread arrests and convictions of major smugglers over the last two years.

Thumbnail image for honeycomb406.jpgExperts interviewed by Food Safety News say some of the largest and most long-established U.S. honey packers are knowingly buying mislabeled, transshipped or possibly altered honey so they can sell it cheaper than those companies who demand safety, quality and rigorously inspected honey.

“It’s no secret that the honey smuggling is being driven by money, the desire to save a couple of pennies a pound,” said Richard Adee, who is the Washington Legislative Chairman of the American Honey Producers Association.

“These big packers are still using imported honey of uncertain safety that they know is illegal because they know their chances of getting caught are slim,” Adee said.

Food safety investigators from the European Union barred all shipments of honey from India because of the presence of lead and illegal animal antibiotics.  Further, they found an even larger amount of honey apparently had been concocted without the help of bees, made from artificial sweeteners and then extensively filtered to remove any proof of contaminants or adulteration or indications of precisely where the honey actually originated.

An examination of international and government shipping tallies, customs documents and interviews with some of North America’s top honey importers and brokers documented the rampant honey laundering and that a record amount of the Chinese honey was being purchased by major U.S. packers.

Food Safety News contacted Suebee Co-Op, the nation’s oldest and largest honey packer and seller, for a response to these allegations and to learn where it gets its honey. The co-op did not respond to repeated calls and emails for comment. Calls and emails to other major honey sellers also were unreturned.

EU Won’t Accept Honey from India

Much of this questionable honey was officially banned beginning June 2010 by the 27 countries of the European Union and others. But on this side of the ocean, the FDA checks few of the thousands of shipments arriving through 22 American ports each year.

According to FDA data, between January and June, just 24 honey shipments were stopped from entering the country. The agency declined to say how many loads are inspected and by whom.

However, during that same period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that almost 43 million pounds of honey entered the U.S. Of that, the Department of Commerce said 37.7 million pounds came from India, the same honey that is banned in the EU because it contained animal medicine and lead and lacked the proper paperwork to prove it didn’t come from China.

“There are still millions of pounds of transshipped Chinese honey coming in the U.S. and it’s all coming now from India and Vietnam and everybody in the industry knows that,” said Elise Gagnon, president of Odem International, a worldwide trading house that specializes in bulk raw honey.

The FDA says it has regulations prohibiting foods banned in other countries from entering the U.S. However, the agency said last month that it “would not know about honey that has been banned from other countries …”

Adee called the FDA’s response “absurd.” He said the European ban against Indian honey is far from a secret.

“Why are we the dumping ground of the world for something that’s banned in all these other countries?” asked Adee, who, with 80,000 bee colonies in five states, is the country’s largest honey producer.

“We’re supposed to have the world’s safest food supply but we’re letting in boatloads of this adulterated honey that all these other countries know is contaminated and FDA does nothing.”

The food safety agency said it’s doing the best it can with existing resources and will do more when the newly passed Food Safety Modernization Act is up and running.

Where Is Our Honey Coming From?

honeypot350.jpgThe U.S. consumes about 400 million pounds of honey a year – about 1.3 pounds a person. About 35 percent is consumed in homes, restaurants and institutions. The remaining 65 percent is bought by industry for use in cereals, baked goods, sauces, beverages and hundreds of different processed foods.

However, the USDA says U.S. beekeepers can only supply about a 48 percent of what’s needed here.  The remaining 52 percent comes from 41 other countries.

Import Genius, a private shipping intelligence service, searched its databases of all U.S. Customs import data for Food Safety News and provided a telling breakdown:

– The U.S. imported 208 million pounds of honey over the past 18 months.

– About 48 million pounds came from trusted and usually reliable suppliers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Uruguay and Mexico.

– Almost 60 percent of what was imported – 123 million pounds – came from Asian countries – traditional laundering points for Chinese honey. This included 45 million pounds from India alone.

“This should be a red flag to FDA and the federal investigators. India doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity – enough bees – to produce 45 million pounds of honey. It has to come from China,” said Adee, who also is a past president of the American Honey Producers Association.

Why Is Chinese Honey Considered Dangerous?

Chinese honeymakers began using various illegal methods to conceal the origin of their honey beginning in about 2001. That’s when the U.S. Commerce Department imposed a stiff tariff – as much as $1.20 a pound — on Chinese honey to dissuade that country from dumping its dirt-cheap product on the American market and forcing hundreds of U.S. beekeepers out of the business.

About the same time, Chinese beekeepers saw a bacterial epidemic of foulbrood disease race through their hives at wildfire speed, killing tens of millions of bees. They fought the disease with several Indian-made animal antibiotics, including chloramphenicol. Medical researchers found that children given chloramphenicol as an antibiotic are susceptible to DNA damage and carcinogenicity. Soon after, the FDA banned its presence in food.

“We need imported honey in this country.  But, what we don’t need is circumvented honey, honey that is mislabeled as to country of origin, honey that is contaminated with antibiotics or heavy metal,” said Ronald Phipps, co-chairman of the International Committee for Promotion of Honey and Health and head of the major honey brokerage firm CPNA International.

Heavy Metal Contamination

The Chinese have many state-of-the-art processing plants but their beekeepers don’t have the sophi
stication to match. There are tens of thousands of tiny operators spread from the Yangtze River and coastal Guangdong and Changbai to deep inland Qinghai province.  The lead contamination in some honey has been attributed to these mom-and-pop vendors who use small, unlined, lead-soldered drums to collect and store the honey before it is collected by the brokers for processing.

The amount of chloramphenicol found in honey is miniscule. Nevertheless, public health experts say it can cause a severe, even fatal reaction — aplastic anemia — in about one out of 30,000 people.

European health authorities found lead in honey bought from India in early 2010. A year later, the Indian Export Inspection Council tested 362 samples of honey being exported and reported finding lead and at least two antibiotics in almost 23 percent of the test samples.

The discovery of lead in the honey presents a more serious health threat.

“The presence of heavy metals is a totally different story, because heavy metals are accumulative, they are absorbed by organs and are retained. This is especially hazardous for children,” Phipps said.

All the bans, health concerns and criticism of Indian honey hasn’t slowed the country’s shipping of honey to the U.S. and elsewhere. In February, India’s beekeepers and its government agricultural experts said that because of weather and disease in some colonies, India’s honey crop would be late and reduced by up to 40 percent.

Yet two months later, on April 15 in Ludhiana, officials of Kashmir Apiaries Exports and Little Bee Group, India’s largest honey exporters, posed for newspaper photographers in front of “two full honey trains” carrying 180 20-foot cargo carriers with a record 8.8 million pounds of honey headed for the export ports.

“They’re clearly transshipping honey from China and I can’t believe that they are so brazen about it to put it right on the front page of a newspaper,” honey producer Adee said.

Data received by FSN from an international broker in India on Friday showed that within the last month 16 shipments – more than 688,000 pounds – of honey went from the Chinese port of Nansha in Guangzhou China to Little Bee Honey in India.  The U.S. gurus of international shipping documents – Import Genius – scanned its database and found that just last week six shipments of the honey went from Little Bee to the port of Los Angeles. The honey had the same identification numbers of the honey shipped from China.

Government investigators in the U.S. and Europe and customs brokers in India told FSN that previous successful criminal investigations had proven that the Chinese honey suppliers and their brokers are masterful at falsifying shipping documents.

Each of the shipments – whether from China or India – bore an identical FDA inspection number. However, FDA’s Division of Import Operations did not respond to requests for information on how and where it issued that FDA number.

Food Safety News left several messages for the Little Bee Group to discuss the source of their honey and how they were breaking records when the rest of India’s honey producers were months behind schedule. None of the phone messages or emails were returned.

Other major Indian honey exporters insist that India gets no honey from China. However, Liu Peng-fei and Li Hai-yan of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences disagree. In a scientific study of the impact the global financial crisis is having on China’s honey industry, the apiculture scientists wrote that to avoid the “punitive import tariffs” Chinese enterprises “had to export to the United States via India or Malaysia in order to avoid high tariffs…”

Why Hasn’t Smuggling Stopped?

The massive honey laundering scams that plagued the U.S. for more than a decade – the transshipment of Chinese honey to a second country before being reshipped to the U.S. — were presumably given a deathblow over the past two years.

During that period, Justice Department lawyers and Department of Homeland Security and FDA investigators launched a series of indictments and arrests of 23 German, Chinese, Taiwanese and American corporate officials and their nine international companies.

They were charged with conspiracy to smuggle more than $70 million worth of Chinese honey into the U.S. by falsely declaring that the honey originated from countries other than China. That allowed them to avoid paying stiff anti-dumping charges imposed on China.

It was an impressive series of complex busts spanning three continents, and instant fodder for a great whodunit novel. But, according to some of North America’s largest producers and importers of honey, the arrests bombed as a deterrent.

“There are still millions of pounds of transshipped Chinese honey coming into the U.S.A. and it’s all coming now from India and Vietnam. Everybody in the industry knows that,” said Odem International’s Gagnon.

How Do They Get Away With It?

When it comes to honey laundering, the crooks are always trying to stay one step ahead of the criminal investigators.

honeybarrels-inside.jpg

For example, when customs agents discovered that China usually shipped its honey in blue steel drums, the exporters quickly painted the drums green.

It took investigators a while to learn that often — while the drums were in port or en route at sea — the Chinese shuffled drum labels and phony paperwork showing country of origin as places that didn’t have an onerous anti-dumping tariff. The Russian Honey Federation blew the whistle on the Chinese relabeling millions of pounds as coming from Russia.

After that scam became known, the felons then shipped Chinese honey to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia. There the honey was repacked, authentic local documents were issued and the honey was shipped on to the U.S. or elsewhere.

Another favorite con among Chinese brokers was to mix sugar water, malt sweeteners, corn or rice syrup, jaggery, barley malt sweetener or other additives with a bit of actual honey. In recent years, many shippers have eliminated the honey completely and just use thickened, colored, natural or chemical sweeteners labeled as honey.

However, sophisticated analysis that will match the pollen in honey to flowers from a specific geographic region is available at just two or three laboratories around the world.  There are also simpler, less expensive tests to detect the telltale presence of commercial sweeteners and other adulterants that are more readily available.

A laboratory in Bremen, Germany, founded a half century ago by German beekeepers, can accurately scan honey samples for flower pollen.   There is only one expert in the U.S. known to analyze pollen in honey to determine where it was actually grown and that would be at the Palygnology Laboratory at Texas A&M.  The lab was created and is run by Vaughn Bryant, a forensic palynologist and Professor of Anthropology.

Melissopalynology, or pollen analysis, has been used for years by geologists seeking evidence of ancient coastal areas – often sites of major oil deposits. Scientists tracing the origins of the Shroud of Turin have identified 61 different pollens on the cloth that could only have come from around Jerusalem.

Forensic scientists have used pollen identification to help solve murder, rapes, kidnapping and at least one espionage case. Now, at least in the labs in Texas and Germany, melissopalynologists use pollen to determine – with great accuracy – the geographic area where the bees foraged for the nectar.

“If they find, for example, pollen from flowers that grow in northern latitudes – like China – but it’s found in honey ostensibly produced in tropical countries – like India, Vietnam, Malaysia and the like – you know something’s rotten or illegal,” said CPNA International’s Phipps, who also produces a quarterly, international intelligence report that monitors the country-by-country supply of honey and everyone’s exports.

To avoid detection by concerned purchasers or criminal investigators, some Chinese producers in state-of-the-art processing plants pump the alleged honey, heated and under high pressure, through elaborate ceramic filters. This ultra-filtration removes or conceals all floral fingerprints and indicators of added sweeteners or contaminants.

“The Chinese have refined methods of masking their contaminated product by ultra-filtration so their honey seems perfect. But it’s not honey anymore. There’s no color.  There’s no flavor. There’s nothing.  So you take this perfect product, which could be confused with honey, and you blend it with real Indian honey,” Gagnon said.

“Everyone avoids tariffs because government agents cannot test to prove it’s from China.”

honeytesting-inside.jpgThe FDA says it has sent a letter to industry stating that the agency does not consider ultra-filtered honey to be honey.

“We have not halted any importation of honey because we have yet to detect ultra-filtered honey.  If we do detect ultra-filtered honey we will refuse entry,” said FDA press officer Tamara Ward.

“FDA is just not looking” was the answer that most honey brokers offeredThey added that the FDA doesn’t want to find it because then the agency would have to test for it, something it is incapable of doing in its existing laboratories.

Honey experts worry that new technologies will make detection of adulterants even more difficult.

At June’s conference of the Institute of Food Technologists in New Orleans, there were hundreds of Chinese vendors working in small clusters beneath bright red banners. They offered for sale almost any spice, food-processing substance or additives a food processor might want and promises of concocting anything else they could dream of. “All FDA approved,” they emphasized to potential clients.

One salesman quickly jerked back his business card when a reporter pulled out a tape recorder to capture the man’s promises offering a “nanoparticle sweetener for honey that cannot be detected.”

Does the FDA Care?

The U.S. Departments of Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have dollar and cents issues to worry about because hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese imports are circumvented by the honey laundering.

“These honey crimes are not a Republican or Democratic, Liberal or Conservative issue.  The country is being ripped off of millions and millions,” Phipps said.

Recent news releases by the border patrol and the FDA say they have developed an anti-smuggling strategy to identify and prevent smuggled foods from entering the United States and posing a threat to national security and consumer safety.

But at the field level, investigators with the two agencies and an agent with ICE’s Commercial Fraud Unit said the cooperation is more on paper then in practice and that the FDA continues to be the weak link. They say the FDA either doesn’t have the resources to properly do the job or is unwilling to commit them.

ICE and the border patrol can and do go after the honey launderers by enforcing the anti-dumping and tariff violation laws. But protecting consumers from dangerous honey, identifying it as adulterated and therefore illegal for importation, falls to the FDA. And many of its enforcement colleagues say the food safety agency doesn’t see this as a priority.

A Justice Department lawyer told Food Safety News that the FDA has all the legal authority and obligation it needs to halt the importation of tainted honey. He cited two sections of the agency’s regulations defining when food products are considered “adulterated.”

The regulations say: “Food is adulterated if it bears or contains a poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health” and “damage or inferiority has been concealed.”

Those two factors pretty much sum up the health concerns that many have with the smuggled honey. But the honey industry and Congress can’t get the FDA to even come up with a legal definition of what honey is.

Eight years ago, America’s beekeepers and some honey packers petitioned FDA to issue an official definition of honey. Their concern was how to determine whether honey is bogus if there is no official standard to measure it against. The FDA did nothing.

Last Nov. 15, senators asked the food safety agency for the same thing. Again, nothing.

On Aug. 10, two members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations tried once more.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and John Hoeven (R-ND) urged the FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to issue the official definition.

Calling the lack of regulations “a food safety concern,” Gillibrand said a national standard of identity for honey is needed “to prevent unscrupulous importers from flooding the market with misbranded honey products…”

An investigator in FDA’s import section explained the agency’s refusal to develop an official definition to FSN. “If we had an official description of honey then FDA would have to inspect everything we’re importing to ensure it’s legal. That’s the last thing we want to do,” he said, but would not allow his name to be used because he wasn’t authorized to make public statements.

How Do You Stop The Illegal Flow?

Gagnon and four other major players in the honey industry have formed a voluntary group called True Source Honey.  They hope it will eventually expand into an international, industry-wide program to certify the origin and quality of honey.

“We need an origin traceability program, a professional audit of both the exporters and the packers so those buying and selling honey can ensure its authenticity and quality,” said Gagnon, who is the group’s vice chairman.

Meanwhile, it’s rumored that the feds are increasing their surveillance of the large U.S. importers and not too soon, Adee and others say.

Adee likens the honey laundering to a huge auto chop shop, where the police occasionally arrest the low-level car thieves but others pop up to continue supplying the criminal operation, which authorities never go after.

“That’s what’s happening here,” Adee explained. “ICE and the other investigators have arrested a handful of the middle men, the brokers who supply the honey packers, but haven’t gone after the big operators buying the phony foreign honey.”

Adee and others interviewed by Food Safety News say there are 12 major honey packers in the U.S. and four or five that are involved with the bulk of illegal trade.

“We know who they are,” he said. “Everyone in the indu
stry knows. If these packers are allowed to continue buying this possibly tainted but clearly illegal smuggled honey, the importers will always find a way to get it to them.”

———-

Editor’s Note:  Andrew Schneider, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, writes for Food Safety News and The Food Watchdog.com

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for data on two heavy metals in a range of food types.

The first covers methylmercury and total mercury in orange roughy, pink cusk-eel and all toothfish and the second is on lead in cereal-based foods and ready-to-eat meals for infants and young children; dried spices and culinary herbs; eggs; sugars and sugar-based candies. Both have a deadline of Oct. 15, 2021.

New or additional data for mercury in fish should cover the past 12 years. It must be submitted to WHO through the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) database. Data already sent in doesn’t need to be resubmitted.

The Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods met virtually in May and agreed to start work on maximum levels (MLs) for methylmercury in orange roughy and pink cusk-eel and to re-establish an electronic working group led by New Zealand and Canada to develop MLs and associated sampling plans for consideration in the committee’s next meeting in 2022. This group will also consider data to establish the feasibility of setting an ML for Patagonian toothfish.

Those with data should provide information on the limit of quantification (LOQ) and limit of detection (LOD) of analytical methods, list if samples are fresh or processed, canned, preserved, or salted, if fish were caught domestically or imported and information from at least two locations in representative fishery areas.

Lead data
The same Codex committee also agreed to establish an electronic working group led by Brazil to establish maximum levels for lead in the foods listed above for consideration at the meeting next year. New data should cover the past 10 years.

Dried spices includes floral parts; bark; rhizomes, bulbs and roots; fresh eggs includes chicken and duck eggs. For sugars, it is white, raw cane and soft brown sugar, honey, syrup and molasses and sugar-based candies covers hard and soft candies, gummy and jelly.

Information should include whether the analyzed food was cooked or raw, if it was analyzed on a dry matter basis or as is and country of origin.

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Campylobacter and Salmonella infections declined in Switzerland in 2020 while Listeria was stable despite a large outbreak. E. coli reports fell for the first time since 2014.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely influenced disease reports, researchers said. Factors such as resources being diverted to coronavirus, hygiene measures and travel restrictions may explain the trend. The Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) said people will have to wait until after the pandemic for the situation to be assessed in more detail.

The number of foodborne outbreaks almost halved from 23 in 2019 to 13 in 2020.  Overall, 161 people became ill and 36 were hospitalized. Ten deaths were recorded in one incident.

Although the number of campylobacteriosis cases confirmed by laboratory diagnosis decreased from 7,223 to 6,200 it remained the most frequently recorded zoonosis in humans in 2020.

As in previous years, men were slightly more affected than women. This trend was seen in all age groups. There were 1,811 cases between July and August and a second short-lived increase during the holiday season as in past years.

Campylobacter infections exceeded 1,000 colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) for 65 of  780 chicken carcass samples analyzed. Another 118 samples were above the detection limit but were not contaminated at levels as high as 1,000 CFU/g.

Salmonella and E. coli
Salmonellosis remains the second most frequent zoonosis in Switzerland with 1,270 cases in 2020 compared to 1,546 in 2019. The seasonal peaks typical of the summer and fall months recurred again in 2020.

The most frequently reported serovars remained the same with Enteritidis first, followed by Typhimurium and monophasic Typhimurium.

As part of self-monitoring by the poultry sector, 2,794 analyses were carried out on chicken and turkey meat in 2020 and 36 were positive for Salmonella, mostly Salmonella Albany.

The number of confirmed cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infections decreased from 999 to 728 in 2020, stopping an increasing trend between 2014 and 2019.

As in 2019, most cases were recorded in the third quarter. With the exception of children younger than 5. Women were slightly more affected than men. A total of 539 cases were reported in women. A possible country of exposure was mentioned in 361 cases with Switzerland listed on 305 occasions.

With 17 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) reported in 2020, the figure was down slightly from 21 in 2019. Seven children younger than 5 and five people aged 65 and over were affected.

Listeria levels
The 58 confirmed listeriosis cases reported in 2020 are within the annual variations usually observed, despite an outbreak in the first half of the year.

As in previous years, the highest reporting rate was recorded in the over 65 age group. Men were slightly more affected than women.

A total of 22 cases were detected between January and July; thanks to whole genome sequencing they were connected with 12 illnesses in 2018 and linked to a cheese factory. Ten people died in this outbreak.

In 2020, 710 samples taken from cheese, milk and environmental tests were analyzed as part of Agroscope’s Listeria Monitoring Program. Listeria monocytogenes was detected in three and other types of Listeria were found in 14 samples.

Other agents
As part of Operation Opson X, run annually by Europol and Interpol on food fraud, Swiss authorities took 15 samples of honey, mostly from Ukraine, to check for the addition of sugars. From 13 samples able to be analyzed, none contained added sugars.

Four confirmed Trichinella cases were identified but the sources of infection were uncertain. It is usually from infection abroad or contaminated imported meat products. More than 2.1 million slaughter pigs and 1,286 horses tested negative for Trichinella. It was not detected in the 7,343 wild boars examined.

One case each of Mycobacterium bovis and Mycobacterium caprae were detected in 2020, both in people older than 75, who likely contracted the disease during their childhood in Switzerland, following consumption of unpasteurized, raw milk, according to the report.

Three cases of lab confirmed brucellosis were reported compared to seven the previous year. Those affected were males aged 2 to 54 years old. Infections usually result from unpasteurized milk products.

In a study published in the journal Pathogens in 2020 by the Institute of Parasitology at the University of Zurich, the genome of Echinococcus multilocularis was detected in two out of 157 lettuce samples.

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More than 15,000 tons of food and drink worth $60 million has been seized globally in operations targeting fake and potentially dangerous products.

Operation Opson X involved 72 countries between December 2020 and June 2021. The annual drive is coordinated by Interpol and Europol and featured police, customs, national food regulatory authorities and private sector companies.

In total, 15,451 tons of illegal products were found with an estimated street value of €53.8 million ($63.3 million). Nearly 68,000 checks were carried out by participating countries, resulting in 1,000 criminal cases being opened.

The top seized goods by quantity were alcohol and food supplements, followed by cereals and grain products and fruit and vegetables. Alcoholic drinks were the most commonly counterfeited.

In Operation Opson in 2020, 77 countries took part and about 12,000 tons of illegal items were confiscated. Animal food was the most seized product followed by alcoholic beverages.

Food posing consumer health risk
In the latest Opson, eight people were arrested and seven companies investigated as authorities clamped down on the trade of bivalves, such as mussels and oysters, unfit for human consumption. This involved seizures of €120,000 ($141,000), 25 vehicles and 12 vessels by the Spanish Guardia Civil and Portuguese National Guard (Guarda Nacional Republicana).

Bags of substandard foodstuffs seized by authorities in Rwanda (most likely maize or baking flour). Picture: Interpol

Thirty tons of frozen chicken were returned to Poland because of the detection of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in the area goods came from. In Portugal, 61 tons of organic bananas from Ecuador with traces of pesticides were confiscated and in Rwanda, poorly transported meat and expired butter were seized.

In another case, a criminal network used colorants to change the quality of beverages. This led to 14 arrests and seizures including 47,660 liters of whiskey and 9,550 liters of alcohol for the manufacture of fraudulent products by the Guardia Civil and customs authorities.

Jürgen Stock, Interpol secretary general, said removing the enormous quantity of illegal and often dangerous products from the market is an example of how international police cooperation is making the world safer.

“Food crime may not always seem like a top policing priority but operations like Opson X demonstrate the massive profits these products generate, which can then fund other organized crime activities.”

Action was supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).

U.S. involved in checking honey
More than 650 arrest warrants were issued during the operation, which is estimated to have disrupted the work of 42 organized crime groups worldwide.

The U.S. was part of a targeted action on honey that featured 495 checks with 7 percent of products non-compliant and 51,000 kilograms of fraudulently treated honey seized.

Officials in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and Scotland mainly checked the analytical detection of sugar syrup and corn syrup.

In continued work from the previous Opson operation, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain looked at horse passports and the sale of illegal horse meat.

Catherine De Bolle, Europol’s executive director, said counterfeit and substandard food and beverages can be found on the physical market and sold online.

“The increased health risk for consumers is proportional to the reduced quality of raw materials used in the food processing system. Europol sees a recent development: low-quality products have infiltrated the food supply chain, an evolution possibly related to the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Enforcement action also found fake test kits for COVID-19, HIV and malaria, bush meat and other products of wildlife crime.

The results mark a decade of Opson operations, with the first in 2011 involving just 10 countries and recovering illicit goods worth €300,000 ($353,000).

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reduction in referee cases but requests have increased in complexity, according to the Government Chemist.

Paul Hancock, referee analyst and head at the Office of the Government Chemist in the United Kingdom, said cases include genetically modified rice from China, antibiotics in honey and labeling of a food supplement.

A formal sample is normally in three parts. One part goes to the public analyst or the authority who took it and the second to the food or feed business operator who has the right to have it analyzed. If there is a dispute between those two results, the Government Chemist provides an independent look at the analysis and the interpretation. A food or feed business can also send a sample directly to the Government Chemist for their opinion.

Hancock said the reduction in cases and change in requests was likely down to the pandemic.

“The number of cases the Government Chemist has received in the past 12 months has been significantly lower at seven, we typically receive 10 to 14 per year. This is due to COVID-19 and the lack of sampling activity at trading standards and environmental health so disputes are not arising. The nature of cases is still diverse,” he told attendees at the Government Chemist Conference this past week.

GMO work on rice products
There were four cases related to GMO’s in rice products from China. The regulations require an enhanced level of testing of rice products from China because of historical detection of GMOs. Two were compliant and one non-compliant with one case withdrawn at the request of the food company.

“We’ve seen four cases in recent times. There has been a reduction in the capacity and capability within the UK in this area of analysis since the closure of Worcestershire Scientific Services which was the UKAS-accredited lab for the testing. We’ve seen a number of labs are offering the service but they are not following the EU methodology and guidance to the letter,” said Hancock.

Another incident involved a sample of Manuka honey being detained. The public analyst analyzed it for a suite of antibiotic residues and Dihydrostreptomycin and streptomycin were detected.

The food business submitted this to a second lab that found both residues at low levels. Maximum residue limits for the compounds are set in EU regulation but honey is not covered. Other rules state pharmacologically active substances should not be present above the limit of detection. An investigation concluded Dihydrostreptomycin and streptomycin were not detected in the sample so it was compliant.

Honey and supplement cases
The Government Chemist was also involved when a food supplement was found to contain niacin in an unusual form. The public analyst commented on labeling that nicotinamide riboside chloride (NRC) was not a permitted form of niacin and couldn’t be used. There were other labeling irregularities around the expression of niacin, nutrients reference value, and the health claims related to consumption of niacin.

The product was caught between two pieces of EU legislation – one that had been enacted and the other was in draft form, according to Hancock.

The Government Chemist confirmed the sample contained NRC. It was correct to use it in a food supplement but it wasn’t permitted to be declared as a form of niacin. The Government Chemist opinion was that the nutritional information wasn’t correct. NRC couldn’t be used as a permitted form of niacin so the health claims were also not authorized. The business has incorporated all findings onto the label and amended the product.

Hancock also spoke about two active cases involving a food supplement and honey.

“We’ve been asked by another regulatory body to give an opinion on the science used to support a number of claims on a food supplement around the implication of techniques and how the data generated by those techniques has been interpreted,” he said.

“Another is a big case around honey authenticity and methods used to determine whether the honey is authentic or otherwise. What is the robustness of these methods, particularly where databases have been used, and the interpretation of large and complex datasets? The case concerns more than 100 data points and is taking some time but I believe it will be published shortly.”

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Flexible food safety bylaws are making it easier for small-scale producers in Serbia to sell their products in formal markets.

These rules, in line with EU food safety and quality standards, include derogations for traditional products based on local fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs. They add to earlier measures developed for Serbian meat and dairy.

They mean small-scale producers and processors can continue following traditional production methods as long as the food is safe and procedures around hygiene are followed.

FAO, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Serbian Government held an online roundtable with Serbian agricultural producers, food distributors, representatives from producer organizations and consumer groups on what the rules entail for on-farm and small-capacity processors on World Food Safety Day.

Thousands of small businesses
Nenad Vujović, Serbia’s assistant minister for inspection, said the bylaws are an opportunity for the country’s producers to compete on the domestic market and abroad while helping preserve the diversity of Serbian foods such as pickled cornichons and jams.

“The flexibility measures outline specific requirements related to processing that either are not compulsory for small-scale operators or can easily be adapted. We are excited to partner with everyone along the food safety chain to roll out these measures and to make sure everyone understands the economic benefits of complying with them,” he said.

Miloš Pajic makes traditional sausages, ham and other specialty meat products and owns one of the thousands of small family-run businesses in the country.

“I’m working with my children to keep them up to date on these safety and hygiene measures at all stages, from the raw material to the finished product,” he said.

In Serbia, most farming families grow their own fruits and vegetables. Many, including Stevan Petrovic, produce ajvar, a pepper paste made according to a traditional recipe handed down over the years. Petrovic said without the measures, he and other smaller operators would be squeezed out of larger, formal markets.

“When people buy my ajvar, they will know I haven’t sacrificed food safety or hygiene,” he said.

Serbia – a candidate for EU membership – began adapting its food safety regulations several years ago to be in line with EU legislation. But these rules were geared towards larger operators. FAO and the EBRD helped develop the bylaws, based on flexibility measures already used in EU member countries, to assist smaller Serbian businesses.

The webinar introduced guidelines and video tutorials, to help producers comply with the bylaws. It was the latest in a series of efforts by FAO and the EBRD supporting the Serbian Government to raise food safety and quality standards and improve competitiveness of the country’s meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable sectors.

Serbian view on issues of note
Tamara Boskovic, head of the veterinary public health department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management in Serbia, said it worked with small producers over several years to try and find solutions.

Tamara Boskovic

“We prepared a rulebook with derogation for small producers and guidelines for the meat and dairy sector on how they can implement hygiene and self-control rules. They started to submit requests to be in our register and under our control, we also provided local training for them to focus on hygiene rules and so they were aware flexibility rules do not apply to hygiene,” she said during a different webinar on World Food Safety Day.

“We had some issues in mountain areas where there is no potable water or water at all or electricity so hygiene rules are not at a high level but working with them now a third of producers in Serbia are registered as establishments within the flexibility principles. Our ministry recognized the importance of keeping these small producers alive so provided some subsidies for them to upgrade their establishments and knowledge.”

Boskovic said the country is part of projects financed by the EU, FAO and World Bank to do and present research to monitor progress.

“E. coli and Salmonella are still top bacteria in Serbia even if hygiene rules are quite strict in our food safety systems. Viruses like norovirus in raspberries is an issue and we have certain problems with Hepatitis virus in some food. We try to implement all monitoring programs for veterinary residues, pesticides and microbiological parameters on food and at border control.”

Producers had to implement strict measures during COVID-19 but there was no less production and people were buying more food, said Boskovic.

“What we faced was there was not enough food for people in a lower social category, for the poor and unemployed as the public kitchen was closed. In honey production, we had food fraud issues as during official controls people could not go everywhere to control everything. We are trying to export meat and milk to China, we are aware food does not transmit COVID, but China asked us to check packaging material and the surface of frozen meat for COVID so we had to establish this testing in Serbia and that really caused some impact on our food industry.”

AMR on the agenda
Meanwhile, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) surveillance has been included in Uzbekistan’s National Program to Combat Microorganism Resistance to Antimicrobial Drugs for 2020 to 2024.

One way to highlight the public health threat posed by AMR is through effective surveillance programs. Information about the levels of AMR in foodborne pathogens and of antimicrobial residues in food of animal origin can help guide risk management and policy.

However, not many nations in the WHO European Region have sufficient surveillance capacity for AMR in the food chain. The World Health Organization (WHO) Europe is helping countries establish and strengthen systems for AMR and antimicrobial residues, and to integrate AMR testing in existing systems for foodborne disease surveillance and response.

Gulnora Abdukhalilova, a scientist at the Ministry of Health in Uzbekistan, ran a project looking at antimicrobial resistant strains of Campylobacter and Salmonella in chickens bred for food in 2016.

Research showed most Salmonella strains in chicken were multi-drug resistant, meaning infections they cause can be difficult to treat. Overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in poultry production was a driver of resistance.

“Monitoring of resistance to antimicrobial drugs in common foodborne pathogens simply has to be done. It is important to coordinate and exchange information between different sectors, such as poultry production and health care,” said Abdukhalilova.

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