For nearly a decade, an international cabal of criminals has been secretly smuggling a sought-after substance across borders, altering shipping records, evading government inspectors, and adulterating supplies with cheap, potentially dangerous additives, all in the name of profit.
Their illegal activities have attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Commerce Department, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the governments of Australia, India, Russia, and Singapore.
Just months ago, in September, several key players in this smuggling game were indicted in Chicago on charges of illegally importing more than $40 million worth of ill-gotten, potentially adulterated product into the United States, and selling the inferior stuff at cut-rate prices.
You probably have at least a few ounces of the substance at the center of this global intrigue right now, sitting innocently in your kitchen pantry: honey.
In 2002, at the request of U.S. honey producers who were struggling to compete with an influx of low-priced imported honey, the U.S Commerce Department placed a hefty tariff of $1.20 per pound on imported honey from China, the world’s largest honey producer.
That same year, European and Canadian officials discovered and seized more than 80 shipments of Chinese honey that were contaminated with the antibiotic chloramphenicol. Linked to liver damage, bone marrow suppression, anemia and leukemia in humans, chloramphenicol has been banned for use by beekeepers in the United States.
Since then, imported honey from China has also been found on several occasions to be contaminated with pesticides or industrial pollutants, or diluted with corn syrup or cane sugar.
As a result of these frequent findings of adulteration and contamination, in addition to higher taxes, imported honey from China is generally subject to extra scrutiny and testing by U.S. customs officials.
But over the years, since restrictions on Chinese honey imports were put into place, certain savvy international traders in honey have figured out a way to sell barrels and barrels of cheap Chinese honey in the U.S. without having to pay higher taxes and jump through bureaucratic hoops — by making PRODUCT OF CHINA disappear from the honey’s shipping label.
For nearly a decade, honey traders have been clandenstinely routing Chinese honey through various other countries, including India and Singapore, where co-conspirators relabel the sweetener with a new country of origin. The beekeeping industry calls it “honey laundering.”
Now, as honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder continues to challenge beekeepers across Europe and North America, devastating honeybee populations, the declining supply of locally-produced honey in these regions is causing prices for the popular natural sweetener to rise.
And though some honey launderers have been caught by customs officials, according to recent investigative reports in the U.S. by the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Canadian Globe and Mail, imported honey of questionable quality and origin, much of it likely laundered honey from China, continues to flood the North American market, undercutting struggling local producers and potentially creating a risk to public health.
So what can the average North American honey lover do to avoid purchasing illegally imported, possibly contaminated honey? Shop locally. Many mainstream grocery stores carry locally-produced honey right alongside the big-name brands, and small-time honey producers are generally proud to feature their location right on the packaging.
If you can’t readily find honey made in your own backyard, make sure the package you buy at least says PRODUCT OF USA or PRODUCT OF CANADA.
You may have to pay a few dollars more per jar for locally-produced honey than you would pay for an imported brand. But consider it a donation that will support local beekeepers, help to preserve bee populations in your area, and fight international crime.
Photo of honeycomb by SEVEN, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.