The Great Honey Swindle

As if bees weren’t having a hard enough time of it lately, now there’s this: According to a report released last week by Food Safety News, the vast majority of store-bought honey sold in this country isn’t technically honey.

You see, the Food and Drug Administration requires any product labeled “honey” to contain pollen, which is reasonable enough. Unfortunately, many manufacturers seem to disagree—testing done for Food Safety News revealed that 76 percent of grocery store products claiming to be honey do not actually contain pollen. Instead, the substance lurking within the confines of those innocent-looking plastic bears is merely ultrafiltered golden sludge that probably came from China.

Ultrafiltering is a process that waters down honey and removes much of its nutritional value along with its pollen. The reason that Chinese producers love ultrafiltering is simple: honey laundering.

Like American corn, Chinese honey is cheap and heavily subsidized. In 2001, the Federal Trade Commission began imposing high tariffs on it because its abundance on the U.S. market had been driving American honey producers out of business. Since pollen is the only sure way to determine where honey originates, ultrafiltering has made it possible for the Chinese to continue dumping their honey on the U.S., often by channeling it through other countries.

And if that’s not shady enough, Chinese honey has been found to contain illegal animal antibiotics. A decade ago, tainted honey that came to the U.S. through Canada was sold to Smucker’s and Sara Lee, resulting in the recall of 12,000 cases of honey and a half-million loaves of bread.

A rep for the FDA told FSN that the organization hasn’t halted any honey imports because it has “yet to detect ‘ultra-filtered’ honey.” But should it be detected, “we will refuse entry.” Given that many in the honey industry expressed doubt that the FDA checks more than five percent of honey imports, that’s cold comfort for both consumers and bees.

Until the FDA steps up its game, you might want to be careful about where you buy. Food Safety News's tests, which were conducted by “one of the nation’s premier melissopalynologists,” found that 100 percent of honey sampled from big drugstore chains contained no pollen, as did 77 percent of the honey from big-box stores like Walmart and Costco, and 76 percent of the honey from grocery chains including Kroger, Safeway, and Giant Eagle. One bee expert told FSN that “unless you’re buying from a beekeeper, you’re at risk.”

The good news is that consumers do have a modicum of power: All of the honey FSN sampled from food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and “natural” chains like Trader Joe’s and PCC contained the full amount of pollen. And while those sources won’t do much to stem the tide of dodgy honey flowing from China, it’s probably best to take sweet relief where you can find it.

Image source: Flickr member cthoyes under Creative Commons