Tainted Honey Sparks Push for FDA Standard

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Honey can be found in virtually every aisle of the supermarket. It's glazed on ham, baked in bread, and soaking in milk with our cereal.

But the word "honey" on food packaging is almost meaningless because there is no guarantee that honey is actually in the product—not even in the iconic little plastic bears used to package it.

The United States currently has no standard that defines pure honey at a national level. Importers can bring in just about any golden syrupy-sweet thing, label it "honey," and reap a tidy profit.

Yet, despite repeated requests from congressional leaders and the honey industry, the Food and Drug Administration has refused to take up the issue. Frustrated by the inaction at the federal level, the honey industry resorted to taking the issue to individual states, which could result in a series of honey standards that vary from state to state.

Is it Really Honey?

Recent court cases and import alerts from the Food and Drug Administration point toward China as a prominent source of honey that has been adulterated with either additives like sweeteners or tainted with antibiotics illegal in the U.S. because of health risks. Products from China labeled as honey may not actually be honey at all, but some other sticky-sweet syrup. Or a honey that claims to be from elsewhere—like Australia for example—might actually originate from China, sometimes tainted with additives or residues such as antibiotics.

Importers from nations including China have found a way around stiff tariffs with a practice known as transshipping or honey laundering.

Exporters first ship the product to places that are exempt from the tariff, such as South Korea, Taiwan or Thailand, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Once there, the honey's country of origin is re-labeled or re-packaged and then sent to the United States—in some cases dodging millions of dollars in fees so it can be profitably sold at a lower price.

"We're definitely seeing economic damage to the bee-keeping industry," said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

A second practice offsets the cost of tariffs which could cost unscrupulous exporters 212 percent the value of the goods. They dilute or adulterate the honey with corn syrup or some other sugary mix, label it "honey," and send it to American consumers who are none the wiser, say honey industry representatives.

"Unfortunately there's a lot of folks that have taken advantage of that," said Mendes of the Beekeeper Federation.

Over the course of two years, beginning in January 2009, the U.S. Justice Department brought three high-profile cases against companies that evaded almost $90 million in import duties. A separate case in 2009 saw the FDA seize more $32,000 of Chinese honey, or 64 drums, which was contaminated with a powerful antibiotic that can cause potentially fatal aplastic anemia in humans: chloramphenicol. It was approved by the FDA in the 1950s for use against serious infections like meningitis and typhoid fever, but was never approved for use on food animals.

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