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So Honey, Where Ya From?
Scientists work to track down mislabeled honey
A lone Texas A&M University researcher and a group of North American honey companies and importers are trying to halt the import of mislabeled Chinese honey.
About two years ago, the U.S. government applied tariffs of up to 500% on Chinese honey after exporters began dumping it—selling the honey at a price lower than its cost—in the United States. The dumping practice has seriously undercut the domestic honey market, said Vaughn Bryant, PhD, a palynologist (one who studies spores and pollen) and anthropology professor at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.
After the tariffs were put in place, importers noticed something strange: The honey they purchased from countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia tasted different than expected. To find out why, they turned to Dr. Bryant, who examines more than 100 pollen sample slides annually, trying to determine the origins of the nectar and honey.
“My analysis pointed out that the reason was [that the honey] wasn’t from those regions. It was from China,” he told Food Quality. In fact, very often the samples he studies “contain all or part Chinese honey.”
Now, in an alleged effort to circumvent the tariffs, Chinese honey is being rerouted through other countries. According to U.S. customs records, millions of pounds of honey are trans-shipped from China to the United States, said Jill Clark of Dutch Gold Honey Inc., in Lancaster, Pa.
Mislabeled honey raises many concerns, especially regarding quality and safety. Clearly, the flavor will be different, Dr. Bryant said. Crystallization speed may differ as well, “which is not good for sales of honey products sitting on grocery shelves,” he said.
Safety can also be an issue. In the past, some Chinese honey has contained antibiotic residues, while other batches have been adulterated, Clark told Food Quality.
Traceability and transparency are problematic, too. “When honey is trans-shipped through another country and its country of origin changes, you lose all ability for traceability and transparency. And people really want to know where their food is coming from,” Clark said.
Vaughn Bryant, PhD, Texas A&M University
If you want orange blossom honey and are willing to pay a premium price for it, shouldn’t you actually be getting what you pay for?
Honest Honey Initiative
There are several ways to combat the honey problem. Dutch Gold Honey, Golden Heritage Foods LLC, Burleson’s Inc., and Odem International Inc. have launched the Honest Honey Initiative to educate and inform consumers, importers, and producers about illegal honey sales, Clark said. Their first step was unveiling their Website, www.honesthoney.com.
The U.S. government can play a key role in blocking illegal honey imports. The first step is to use accurate labeling. “If you want orange blossom honey and are willing to pay a premium price for it, shouldn’t you actually be getting what you pay for?” Dr. Bryant asked.
Further, a government agency must require the testing of imported honey to confirm country of origin and nectar sources, Dr. Bryant said. “That means the imported honey cannot be filtered,” he said. This is a critical point: Filtered honey contains no pollen; without the pollen, it is nearly impossible to identify origin and nectar sources.
Finally, there must be a standard of identity for honey. “We think this would be one extra step to protect pure and natural honey here in the United States,” Clark said. About three years ago, the industry submitted a citizen’s petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the agency has not acted upon it yet. ■