Late last month, the United States Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Illinois announced sweeping changes of fraud, laundering, and evasion of paying $180 million in fines to the U.S. Government against two businesses and a group of men. The defendants are scattered around the country, working with parties overseas, in Poland and China, and are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, millions in restitution, and hard time in jail.
Those details may bring to mind images of Al Capone and organized crime, of running guns and booze and laundering money. But the reality is far sweeter: This is a criminal court case about honey.
Chinese honey, in particular. Honey that, since the early 2000s, the Food and Drug Administration has been working to keep out of the American market for both economic and public-health reasons.
Groeb Farms, Inc. and Honey Holding I, Ltd., two industrial-scale honey packers, and five individuals have allegedly been working to circumvent anti-dumping duties (a charge levied on honey imported from China, to keep imports from flooding the domestic market) and laws like the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which makes it illegal to sell honey containing antibiotics like Chloramphenicol.
Both companies have reached agreements to avoid immediate prosecution, but others implicated haven’t fared so well. As a press release from the court notes, defendant Jun Yang, who was charged with brokering the sale of Chinese honey is
admitting responsibility for fraudulently avoiding antidumping duties totaling as much as $37.9 million on Chinese-origin honey that entered the country illegally as Malaysian and Indian honey between 2009 and 2012. Yang has agreed to pay a fine of $250,000 and restitution totaling $2.64 million, in addition to whatever other sentence is imposed by the court. The government has agreed to recommend a sentence of 74 months in prison.
The charges may be new, but questions about fraud and mislabeling have been swirling for years. As we reported in 2011, many in the industry suspected that honey from China, the world’s largest producer, was slipping past the anti-dumping tariffs—concerns that led to the development of a place-of-origin verification system called True Source Honey.
According to NPR, Eric Wenger, the chairman of True Source, said that “ ‘This is a huge deal for the industry. This is the first admission by a U.S. packer, the actual user,’ that they were knowingly importing mislabeled honey.”
Although “True Source-certified honey now accounts for at least a quarter of U.S. honey consumption,” as Wenger tells NPR, the promise of justice for those harmed by the fraud must still be sweet.
Related stories on TakePart:
• Honey Fraud: Do You Know Where Your Sweet Stuff Is Coming From?
• Buying Seafood? It's Probably Not What You Think It Is
• Hard to Swallow: The Decade's Five Worst Food Frauds
Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com