The food we eatHoney laundering: Tainted, mislabeled honey makes it to store shelves

Published 26 January 2009

Two-thirds of the honey Americans consume is imported; almost half of that comes from China; Chinese honey often contains chloramphenicol or other antibiotics which are illegal in any food; Chinese producers, government mislabel honey jars to mislead consumers

We all know about money laundering. U.S. bee-keepers complain that there is another serious problem — honey laundering. “It doesn’t take a wizard to determine whether there are bad things in the honey we handle, nor a hero to do what it takes to keep it from our food supply,” Mark Brady, a Texas beekeeper who sits on the National Honey Board, told Seattle P-I’s Andrew Schnieder. “If we buy Chinese honey, as we do far too often, we know it may contain chloramphenicol or some other antibiotic that is illegal in any food product.” Brady produces about a million pounds of honey a year.

Two-thirds of the honey Americans consume is imported and almost half of that, regardless of what it says on the label, comes from China, the Seattle P-I reported last month. The newspaper’s five-month investigation into honey laundering — the intentional mislabeling of the country of origin — found that tons of Chinese honey coming into the U.S. is tainted with banned antibiotics. Trouble is, when the contamination is discovered by the industry through internal testing, insiders say, federal health or customs officials are almost never notified, and the honey ends up being dumped back on the market.

Kenneth Haff, the newly elected president of American Honey Producers, says that the industry could solve the problem if companies simply alert the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) each time they discover a tainted shipment. Instead, some major packers simply return bad honey to the importer, naively trusting them to destroy the shipment and not seek another buyer. Said Haff: “We run the risk of the importer trying to resell this same adulterated honey for a cheaper price somewhere else.”

This happens more often than not. Court documents the P-I obtained after the arrests last year of two Chicago-based executives with Alfred L. Wolff, a German food distributor, reveal how rampant the sale and resale of bad honey is. Wolff sold Chinese honey to a U.S. honey producer. The packer tested the shipment and found traces of antibiotics. Wolff took the honey back and resold it to another packer who didn’t test for contaminants.

One of the U.S. largest honey packers is the Sue Bee Honey Association. Sue Bee vice president Bill Huser told P-I that 315 different beekeepers supply 60 percent of the 40 million pounds of honey the Iowa-based company sells each year. The rest is imported. To protect consumers, Huser said, the company does extensive and elaborate testing on the imported honey, finding shipments laced with chloramphenicol, an illegal antibiotic, about once a month. When it is found, he said, it is sent back to the broker who imported it — but the company does not tell the U.S. government about it. Bill Allibone, Sue Bee’s president, said the company has no intention of telling government regulators about the bad honey it finds. It is not really Sue Bee’s honey, he said, “because technically, it’s still (the importer’s) property until we pay for it. We have not notified the FDA in the past because we don’t have title to that property,” Allibone said.

There is a debate within the industry on whether the National Honey Board should serve as a watchdog for tainted honey. Bruce Boynton, the chief executive of the board, a trade group created by the U.S. Agriculture Department, said policing honey is the FDA’s job. “It’s not something we do,” he said. “We have no knowledge about any bad honey out there. That’s not our job, and we never get reports of problems.” In a recent interview, Boynton stressed that the board is “not a regulatory agency” and has no obligation to notify health agencies of potential hazards.