Where Does Your Honey Come From?
And Other Mysteries of the Worldwide Honey Business
Yes, that little squeeze bear, as cute and as innocent looking as Pooh, may not be all that it's cracked up to be. While the production of honey pales in comparison to that of sugar, billions of pounds are produced every year -- so it is definitely a big business. In this country alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that there is in excess of 200,000 beekeepers. Of that number, there are about 1600 commercial operations that produce 60% of the nation's honey; in the year 2000 the total domestic production was estimated to be over 220 million pounds. That means a lot of industrial-level honey handling and processing is going on - including filtering and heat treating to prevent crystallization and fermentation and to make it easier to blend and pack into little squeeze bottles. But if industrial processing was the only concern, then it would be simply a choice between a modern convenience product and a traditional, artisan product. But, this is big business...
At some point during the latter half of the 20th century, the biggest consumers - especially the US and the EU - ceased to be self-sufficient in honey production and began to import. During the 1990s, the US imported between 30% and 40% of its honey needs, or approximately 195 million pounds of honey per year. In the EU they imported as much as 70% of their honey to meet their higher consumption. Most of this honey was processed and shipped in 55-gallon drums or sometimes even larger containers. These imports came from all over the world, with some of the biggest exporters being China, Argentina, Mexico, and Canada.
Dumping and the Decline of Honey
During the 1990's, exports of low-priced, bulk honey from China and Argentina began to increase dramatically, and this began to depress the worldwide price. American honey producers smelled a rat and filled suit with the International Trade Commission (ITC), alleging that the Chinese and Argentine producers were "dumping" honey in the USA. (Dumping refers to the policy of pricing below the cost of production to gain market share, and it is an illegal activity.) The net affect of the dramatically lower prices was a significant decline in US production, and by 2002, we imported more honey than we produced.
In 2002, the ITC found in favor of the US producers, and the US government began imposing duties of up to 140% on imports of Chinese and Argentine honey. This caused an almost immediate increase in the world price and a decrease in the imports from China and Argentina. While Argentina continued to export honey to the US, the amounts were comparatively small. But, China was a different matter.
The high anti-dumping duties didn't seem to deter the Chinese - they had to do something with all that honey they were producing, especially at the increased prices people were paying by 2002. You see, even before the new millennium, the Chinese had become the world's largest honey producer – although, many were very suspicious about how this 'honey' was being 'produced.'
High Fructose Corn Syrup and a Surprising Rise in Production
Funny things started to happen on the world honey market in 2002. Almost overnight, Singapore became the world's fourth largest honey exporter, even though they produce almost no honey themselves. Exports from Thailand, Malaysia and Australia also increased dramatically at the beginning of that year. Suspicions were aroused and questions were raised, especially in Australia, where some of the finest and most unique varieties of honey are produced. Apparently, these questions led to death threats against a senior figure in the Australian honey industry, and a mysterious automobile brake failure only days later.
You see, unless there is a problem with weather or disease, honey production usually doesn't rise and fall rapidly from year to year. It was suspected that the Chinese where shipping huge amounts of honey to places like Thailand, Singapore, and Australia, having it relabeled as a product of those countries, and then re-exporting it to the US in order to avoid the anti-dumping duties. The Aussies were also worried that some of the cheap Chinese honey was staying in Australia to be mixed with Australian honey, packaged for retail and then exported as Australian honey.
Of course, there had been suspicions about the commercial production of Chinese honey ever since China had become a major exporter. There had been reports of dirty Chinese honey product was found being transported in rusty 55 gallon containers that had previously help petroleum products. Add to that reports that Chinese honey "factories" were high security areas and that no one was allowed to visit without official permission, which apparently is rarely given. The rapid rise of Chinese exports coincided with the development of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a very cheap sweetener that has chemical properties similar to honey, so it has been long suspected that the Chinese were cutting their honey with HFCS to decrease its cost. Unfortunately, once you add something to honey, it can no longer be sold as 'honey.' Allegations were regularly made that the Chinese had been selling what amounted to industrial syrups as 'honey', and apparently it was so skillfully produced that the honey could pass the simple chemical analysis used by customs officials.
The dramatic shift in world honey exports initiated an investigation in the spring of 2002 that included Customs agents from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and the US. During that period, US Customs agents had FDA officials test some containers, which they knew had been trans-shipped through third party countries. The honey in the containers proved to be from China and were shipped back to their country of origin.
Discovery of Contaminated Honey
But the containers also yield an additional bit of information. The testing found low levels of a very powerful antibiotic, chloramphenicol, which was not approved for use in food production in the US, Canada, the EU, Australia, and many other nations. Chloramphenicol is the antibiotic of last resort for humans, used only when the illness is life threatening and all other antibiotics have failed. Although rare, the main side affect, idiosyncratic aplastic anemia, is itself life-threatening. The Chinese were apparently using the antibiotic to keep their bees healthy. The FDA officials felt that probability of someone having a life-threatening response to the Chinese honey was very low given the levels found in the honey, but they confiscated the honey none-the-less. Subsequent shipments were all tested and banned if contaminated.
At around the same time, a consumer warning was issued in Canada about the contaminated Chinese honey, and it stated that consumers "should be aware that honey sold in Canada labeled Canada #1 could be blended with honey from China. It is important to read the entire label to determine if it contains honey from China." At around the same time there was a major product recall in Canada that included popular brands of bagels, cookies, muffins and other products that were made with the contaminated Chinese honey.
Do you know where your honey comes from?
The moral of this story is simple and obvious: Know where your honey comes from and buy from people you trust. Like many food products, with honey you definitely get what you pay for. If it is cheap and comes in a squeeze bottle, think twice and real the label carefully.
(c) ChefShop.com, 2010