Tainted Honey Sparks Push for FDA Standard

Frustrated by the FDA's inaction, congressional leaders create state standards.

May 6, 2011, 4:16 PM

May 10, 2011— -- 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.

Senators Request National Honey Standard

In August 2010, 15 U.S. Senators asked the FDA to implement a honey standard as a measure to help law enforcement.

"Having a national standard of honey identity," the letter states, "would enable enforcement officers at the border or within the United States to establish that the honey is what it is represented to be. Additionally, a standard of identity will protect consumers and aid American buyers and sellers of honey."

It wasn't the first such letter to the FDA.

Appeals signed by congressional members and honey industry experts all wrote to the FDA in 2006, 2007 and 2009, but all efforts failed to move the agency to action.

"Where we're really concerned is if the public finds that there is so-called 'funny honey' out there, how are they going to tell the difference," said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "And whose job is it to sort all that stuff out? The FDA."

Despite repeated attempts, the FDA declined an interview, but spokeswoman Tamara Ward responded in an e-mail.

She wrote the FDA had been unable to continue its examination of a pure honey standard due to a "lack of resources and other priorities."

The statement continued: "Proposing a new rule requires multiple factors and utilizes personnel such as policy developers, regulation writers, economists and lawyers. It would not be an efficient use of agency resources to enact a rule with no means of enforcement."

According to its website, the FDA already has standards of identity for more than 280 food products, including lard, margarine and bacon. But honey continues to be emblazoned across bottles of barbecue sauce or loaves of bread without having to meet a standard definition. So a product claiming to be honey might actually be a sweetener that only looks like honey.

"The public, like on a lot of things, they're uninformed," said Warren Nelson a 62-year-old retired Nebraska State Trooper and honey packer for more than 10 years. "And so they're looking for the best deal they can get, and if the label on it says that it's honey, then it must be honey."

States Pass Their Own Honey Standards

Rather than wait for the FDA to act, states have begun implementing their own standards for pure honey, beginning with Florida in 2008. Soon after, California and Wisconsin set their own standards. Most recently, in March, Nebraska became the fifth state to pass a "pure honey standard." At least two states have bills in legislation—New York and Maryland—and as many as a dozen others are considering the issue.

States like Florida and Nebraska used an existing definition of honey as a model. The Codex Alimentarius—latin for "food book"—was commissioned by the United Nations as international guide for trade in food goods. In essence, it defines honey as a product made by bees with nothing added, and nothing removed. But because the Codex is only being used as a starting ground, states could work subtle nuances into their regulations.

The result could be a patchwork of standards that vary from state to state, which could complicate the process of enforcement that much further.

"Different standards in different states could impede interstate commerce," the FDA said in its statement. "FDA will take that into consideration as it moves forward with its review of the petition."

State Sen. Annette Dubas, who sponsored the Nebraska honey standard bill, said she hoped that if enough states passed their own versions of a pure honey standard, it would force the FDA to create a national standard.

"Hopefully this action will cause a reaction at the federal level," she said.

The Cost of Producing Honey

Although the price of honey is at its highest levels in years, associated costs remain high for domestic producers. And matching underpriced imports makes staying in business that much harder.

Doug Long, a third-generation beekeeper in Nebraska, said his honey production has declined in recent years. Adding to the trouble is colony collapse disorder, a thus far unexplained phenomenon in which bee hives suffer dramatic losses or, in extreme cases, even die off entirely. Replacing those bees has produced a cottage industry of bee farms that sell replacement bees and queens.

Long, 68, said when he started in the business in 1964, he could expect to lose about 10 percent of his bees every year.

"Right now we're between 30 and 40 percent of replacement every year," he said.

Replacing those losses can get expensive. A queen bee could cost about $15-$20, and Long said he had to replace about 1,500 queens last year at a cost of approximately $25,000.

"That just gives you an idea of the magnitude of the operation," he said. "And we're small."

Additionally, many producers rent their bees out to farms, particularly in California, where virtually the nation's entire almond supply is dependant solely upon pollination by bees. In fact, the $2.2 billion California almond crop is so vast that it requires 1.2 million bees to pollinate it, which is about half of all bees found in the United States, according to a recent report from the University of California-Davis.

But rising costs will be harder to offset as long as cheap, transshipped Chinese honey—or a golden syrup labeled as honey—continues to undercut domestic prices.

Nancy Gentry, a former English professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., is a newcomer to honey production. The 63-year-old took up beekeeping in her retirement, but after eight years in the business she has become a champion for the pure honey standard.

"I said if we could get Florida to adopt a honey standard then I think the momentum would begin to build for other states to do the same," Gentry said. "And in doing so, every time a state adopted it, it would put a little bit more squeeze on the FDA."

ABCNews.com contributor Charlie Litton is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Lincoln, Neb.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events