If you like honey--and many of us have switched to honey for baking and other sweetening needs--you need to be aware that not only is there some counterfeit honey being sold in the U.S., but also honey that's been "laundered"--like drug money--and honey containing banned antibiotics.
As usual, China is the major culprit in all cases. Honey from China may contain traces of chloramphenicol, an antibiotic Chinese beekeepers use in their hives to prevent disease. Chloramphenicol has been banned by the FDA for use in any food product. Two other antibiotics, iprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin, have also recently been the cause of import alerts issued by the FDA.
Knowing that the U.S. has rules in place against the use of chloramphenicol in food products, and also desiring to avoid U.S. tariffs and inspections, China often "transships" honey: honey is shipped from China to another country and then from that country to the U.S., with bogus papers and export labels.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
honey brokers, bee experts and foreign customs officials say they're suspicious that seven of the top 12 countries appear to be exporting far more honey than their domestic bees produce or their export agencies acknowledge. These countries include Vietnam, India, Thailand, Russia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Countries that have few if any commercial beekeepers, such as Singapore, are now exporting significant quantities of honey, records show. That includes the Grand Bahamas, which has been listed as the country of origin for honey shipped into Houston, authorities say.
"I have a difficult time seeing the Grand Bahamas as a major honey producer," said David Westervelt, a Florida state apiculture inspector. "It's an island. You move bees on there and they'll die."
And then there's the question of what's actually in the bottle that's labeled "Honey." If it came from China or India, it may not much resemble honey after having been
put through an ultra-filtration process that is meant to remove contaminants. Honey is heavily diluted with water, then repeatedly boiled and filtered until it returns to a more natural consistency. Those who have tested and tasted the filtered brew said the process can completely remove all traces of contaminants, "including the color."
But there's a downside.
"In the process of taking out the chemicals, they also take out all the good qualities of the honey. What the consumer is left with is a very low-quality, sweet product -- but certainly not honey," said Mark Brady, president of the American Honey Producers Association.
"If it is cheap and packers can use it to blend into other dark, cheap honey to make it lighter in color and taste a tad better, the ignorant general consumer is none the wiser. Caveat emptor," he warned.
Additionally, the honey may be adulterated with sugar or syrups. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no standards as to what constitutes honey, so it's impossible to take legal action. Got that? No legal definition or standard as to what constitutes honey.
You should also be aware that there is no such thing, according to those in the honey business, as U.S. organic honey. Honey bees travel far and wide, up to two and a half miles, so that they are pretty much always in the vicinity of pesticides and other pollutants. It IS possible to buy organic honey produced in Canada or Argentina, but the U.S. is too heavily developed for organic honey to be a possibility outside of, one imagines, some isolated area that would yield only enough honey for a few local people.
Also, "U.S. Grade A" and other such claims on the label are completely meaningless, as the USDA does not grade honey nor have any such standards.
So, caveat emptor, honey-lovers. Your best bet, of course, is to buy honey locally. You can usually find locally produced honey at farmer's markets--I'd want to speak to the seller and get a feel for whether the honey is really produced locally--and sometimes from local stores or farm stands that stock local produce and items like locally collected and processed maple syrup and honey. We buy our honey from Honeyflow Farm, where a customer can actually see a glassed-in hive with the bees hard at work, and where the honey comes out of a big barrel and flows into the container the customer brings. (The Farm has a mail order business, as well, offering containers of honey.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I want to know where my food comes from, and I want to know what's in it. That's why, wherever possible, we're locavores, and that's why we cook from scratch. When people mess with a natural ambrosia like honey, you know we're living in a really dysfunctional world.