Taking the Sting Out of Honey Laundering

My family likes honey. There’s often a little bear shaped container of honey in our pantry. That little bear may have come from Sue Bee Honey, one of America’s largest and oldest honey cooperatives in Sioux City, Iowa. Formed by five bee keepers in 1921, today Sue Bee produces 40 million pounds of honey.

Honey is one of the oldest known foods.  Ancient Egyptians kept bees and used the honey not just for sweetening but for its healing power.  Ancient Olympians used honey to help maintain energy and boost their performance.

Today honey is still considered an important health food but the story behind honey production is not sweet. 

In a five month investigation into honey laundering, the Seattle Post Intelligencer found that honey coming into the United States from China contained banned antibiotics.  The news series reported in August of 2008, 350 drums containing 223,300 pounds of Chinese honey was shipped from Wuhan, China to a warehouse near New Delhi.  This honey, according to Indian Customs reports, was relabeled as Indian honey and shipped to the Sue Bee Honey Company in Iowa. The company’s tests of the honey found the banned antibiotics.

Investigators also found Chinese honey coming into the U.S. through Russia contained banned antibiotics. The Post Intelligencer reported if the honey is returned to the importer or dealer because of problems, it is often resold to a Texas packer or a Michigan firm that rarely tests for antibiotics.

In March 2007, the Food and Drug administration issued a revised “import alert” when Florida detectives found two banned antibiotics – iproflaxacin and enroflxacine in honey from China. This alert came on the heels of previous alert seven years ago because officials found the banned antibiotic Chloramphenicol. This antibiotic is restricted because of its disease-causing side effects.  Officials found some honey tainted with pesticides.

In addition to the problems identified by the Seattle Post Intelligencer series, in November 2008 the FDA warned of honey adulterated with corn or cane syrup. These adulterations are done to increase the bulk and selling price of the honey.

A consumer purchasing the bear shaped container labeled as honey would have to squint hard to find the word ‘imitation’ printed in tiny letters on the label.  Instead of pure honey they are paying for a container filled mostly with corn syrup. 

So how do we protect consumers from ruthless honey launderers?  I learned there is no national or state standard for honey.  So I introduced legislation to establish a standard for products sold as honey in Wisconsin. 

A honey standard is comprised of specific ranges of sugar levels, moisture content and other scientific indicators of quality.  I used the international standard set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body recognized by the World Trade Organization as an international reference point for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.

All regularly produced honey in Wisconsin should easily meet this standard.  Honey will typically only fail to meet this standard when it has been packaged improperly, blended with artificial sweeteners, watered down or when it contains elements of certain antibiotics and other chemicals.

My bill directs DATCP to create a voluntary ‘Wisconsin Certified Honey’ program in which enrolled producers guarantee their honey meets the Codex standard.  The bill also gives honey producers the ability to seek damages from those who blended their honey with artificial sweeteners and advertised that product as pure honey. 

Establishing a product standard will protect the livelihoods of hundreds of Wisconsin’s beekeepers – from commercial producers to the local beekeepers at the neighborhood farmer’s market and Wisconsin’s honey consumers.  And the standard will make sure Wisconsin consumers won’t get stung when purchasing honey.