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Honey laundering: Honey may be one of the nation's most fraudulent foods

Bears of honey. (Shutterstock)
Published Jun. 11, 2018

Fifteen years ago, Hackenberg Apiaries, with hives in Pennsylvania and Florida, produced 300 barrels of honey a year. According to Davey Hackenberg, that number dipped to 80 barrels two years ago and 40 last year.

Nationwide, many beekeepers report their harvests have been cut by half. The wholesale price of honey has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, now hovering around $8 per pound according to the National Honey Board.

If honeybees are dying and the bees that remain spend most of their time rented out as pollinators, and if American beekeepers routinely report lower honey production and diminished vigor among their honeybees, then we must have a shortage of honey. Right?

Not exactly.

We do have a honey problem, but it's sticky.

According to Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food, Fake Food, honey is among the most faked foods. Last year, the United States imported 275 million pounds of honey and produced less than 120 million pounds. A lot of this honey is ultra-filtered, a high-temperature, high-pressure process that filters out identifying pollen, to hide this fact: It is honey from China that has been transshipped, which means it's sent to an intermediate country like Canada and relabeled as a product of that country to circumvent tariffs.

But why, in general, is Chinese honey bad? It is often diluted with high-fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, beet sugar and other sweeteners, and sometimes contains antibiotics and dangerous chemicals. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, the antibiotics may be a holdover from a Chinese bee disease from 2001 that they fought with antibiotics like chloramphenicol, which is a carcinogen.

The Food and Drug Administration tests only about 5 percent of imported honey. And domestically, the USDA has created a voluntary honey grading system that allows producers to label their own products with Grade A, Grade B or Grade C, with no inspection or certification.

Why isn't there more oversight? According to Fort Meade beekeeper Jim Doan, testing is not a priority for the FDA because the honeys in question "are not contaminated, they're adulterated."

He sees the large-production honey packers as part of the problem.

"Some have been indicted, but the fine is so negligible. It's considered a harmless crime," he says. "You'll get a food buyer for a big cereal company and they'll say to the packer on the down-low, 'We want the special blended product,' because it's cheaper. It's such a small ingredient in the finished cereal that no one knows."

So how can you be a better honey buyer? Here are some tips

• You want a honey that still has its pollen, for health reasons but also because honey with its pollen can be "tracked." A study by Food Safety News found that 75 percent of honey sold in big-box retailers and grocery stores contained no pollen. Nearly all of the honey bought at farmers markets and natural grocers had it. Buy local — even better if it's from a beekeeper him- or herself who seems enthusiastic about their bees. But read labels: Not every honey sold at a Tampa Bay outdoor market is locally produced.

• "Raw honey" means it's unprocessed, unheated, its live enzymes preserved. "Pure honey" is a legally ambiguous term, generally meaning that there are no additives, but says very little about what's in the jar.

• Look for a label for a certification program called True Source honey, an organization of producers that helps prevent illegal trade in honey that circumvents U.S. law. If you don't see the True Source logo on your bottle of honey, check the website (truesourcehoney.com) to see if the brand participates.

• If you see a label that makes the claim of organic, be skeptical. A standard jar of honey requires a bee to make a million flower visits, and a bee can fly 5 miles to do so. Unless it is in a geographically remote area or that bee has a drone following its every movement, that's a difficult claim to make good on. Did that bee dip into a Roundup-laden blossom? No telling.

• In general, darker honeys are graded higher and have bolder tastes. Figure out what you like (light or dark; a specific flower like tupelo or orange blossom; monofloral versus multifloral) and purchase accordingly. Recognize that some special honeys, like manuka honey produced in New Zealand, come with a hefty price tag. Let your wallet and your taste buds duke it out.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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