Honey Laundering: Smuggling Counterfeit Honey to Your Local Store

Josh Clark

bees on honeycells
bees on honeycells

As I've said before, writing the episode about bees for the Stuff You Should Know TV show made me really come to admire bees, so I've been reading whatever comes my way about them these days.

MetaFilter recently enlightened me with a post linking to a suite of articles on a problem of which I was totally unaware, the 21st-century rise of counterfeit honey. Called honey laundering, there are basically two reasons why a company would pass off one type of honey as another: 1) to charge more, as would be the case where cheap honey was being sold as far more expensive gourmet honey, and 2) to evade the U.S. tariff on Chinese honey.

Apparently China produces about a quarter of the world's honey and in 2001, the U.S. accused the Chinese of selling it for less than the cost of production, bringing down the value of American honey and undercutting American honey producers. So the Bush administration slapped a $1.20/pound tariff on honey produced in China, which meant that American firms importing formerly cheap honey from China now had their profit margin reduced. One effective but illegal way around this tariff was to purchase cheap honey from China, route the shipment to another honey-producing state nearby, say India, have your Indian broker slap a "Made in India" sticker on the shipment and you get cheap Chinese honey at pre-2001 costs.

This has become so widespread that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement estimated in 2010 that the U.S. is losing out on about $200 million in Chinese honey tariffs a year. The federales aren't the only ones on the losing end of the honey laundering scheme, however. You are too. Chinese honey has been found to contain adulterants like antibiotics that are outlawed in the U.S., as well as heavy metals.

There are, however, tools that can be used against honey smugglers and most prominent is the melissapalynologist, or a person who studies pollen in honey. Researchers in this field study the origin of pollen to pin down to a relatively small area where honey originated. Bees don't travel too far from their hive so the pollen they collect and leave in trace amounts in honey can be traced back to an area,whether it is Tupelo, Mississippi or China.

Honey launderers have developed a technique for getting around this kind of identification -- they simply get rid of any and all trace pollen found in their honey through heat, pressure and dilution. What results can't technically be called honey, but it's what you're likely to end up buying at your chain store. A 2011 study of 60 different honey brands found that 76 percent contained no pollen. (Here's a list.) Yow.