Honey Fraud: Do You Know Where Your Sweet Stuff Is Coming From?

Pollen identification technology comes to the rescue.
Your honey has a label, but is it telling the truth? (brockvicky/Creative Commons via Flickr)
Dec 14, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Seems hard to believe that something so sweet could be involved in international fraud, but that's exactly what happened when the U.S. tried to slow imports of inexpensive Chinese honey.

In 2001, China, the world's largest honey producer, was flooding the U.S. market with ultra-cheap product, making it tough for domestic suppliers to compete. After an outcry, officials slapped heavy import duties on Chinese honey in 2008, reports NPR. Initially, the tactic worked, and Chinese honey imports slowed. But a sudden proliferation of honey from countries surrounding China made American producers suspicious. Could China be honey laundering?

Jill Clark, vice president of sales and marketing Dutch Gold Honey, one of the largest honey packers in the U.S, explained the problem to NPR: "...[A]ll of a sudden we saw these other countries starting to sell a lot of honey into the U.S., and they weren't countries that tended to have any commercial beekeeping," she said. Most troubling? The largest increases began popping up in China's neighboring countries, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The findings were significant. NPR reports: Pollen testing confirmed suspicions—the honey was falsely labeled. Ron Phipps, president of honey importing company CPNA International, had his company run tests on the "Indonesian and Malaysian" honey samples and found the pollen content closely matched with China, making it highly unlikely that the honey was from elsewhere.

The evidence that this was really Chinese honey was so convincing that U.S. government officials stepped in to shut down those imports, too. They held up shipments, demanding more documentation. They indicted some Chinese and German honey dealers for fraud.

The honey from Indonesia and Malaysia dried up late last year, as quickly as it appeared.

Soon after the fruad was unveiled, massive amounts of honey started showing up in the U.S. from India. Suspicious, but not as damning, since India does have a history of honey production, and lab results yielded no Chinese pollen in tests. Still, Phipps is doubtful that the honey labels are truthful.

So what's a consumer to do? Five major American producers have unveiled True Source Honey, a new system designed to varify the origin of honey sold in the U.S. Any honey granted True Source Honey certification will be subject to rigorous oversight that includes pollen testing and visits to companies' apiaries to determine whether beekeepers are outfitted to produce the quantities of honey they're claiming to produce.

Sound excessive? Perhaps. But Clark doesn't think it's overboard. "With all the food safety and food security issues, knowing where your food comes from right now is incredibly important," she tells NPR.

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