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Honey Laundering

Honey Laundering

Recently I was in conversation with a beekeeper (a semi-rare occurrence) and we, naturally, touched on the subject of organic honey. When I asked him if there really existed a honey that was truly organic, he hesitated and then admitted that organic, even certified organic, when it comes to honey is somewhat of an approximation–as 100 percent organic honey would have to come from 100 percent organic bees. The problem with this claim is that honeybees have a foraging range of several miles (often outside of the organic zone), exposing them to pesticides, fertilizers and pollutants on their way back to the hive. So while beekeepers may be ultra-judicious and proactive when it comes to maintaining a high-standard product, their worker bees often unwittingly lessen the purity and integrity of the honey.

Now whether a honey is or isn’t organic is almost the least of our worries, as there are few federal standards for honey, no government certification and no consequences for making false claims about honey. As imagined, this makes for a market place that is rife with all kinds of substandard honey, or worse, honey that is not really even honey. Often times, to cut costs and “add value” to the product, some unscrupulous producers will dilute their honey with water, various sweeteners and syrups, and boil the honey down to get rid of any off-flavors or chemical residue.

Even though the United States has a relatively booming domestic honey business, it still imports the vast majority of its commercially sold honey, most of which comes from China. While Chinese imports have been getting a bad rap of recent, in the case of honey it is seemingly much deserved. China produces more honey than anywhere else in the world, about 300,000 metric tons (660 million pounds) a year or about 25 percent of the global total. But stocks are tainted with a potentially dangerous antibiotic and cheaper honeys are increasingly getting passed off as more expensive varieties. The Associated Press recently reported on Chinese businessman Yan Yongxiang, who apparently sought to avoid U.S. levies on imports of cheap Chinese honey by shipping Chinese honey to the Philippines, where it was relabeled and sent on to the United States. And just last month, the FDA seized 64 drums of tainted honey from a Philadelphia distribution center. The contraband honey was imported from China, and contained the potent anti-biotic “Chloramphenicol” which could lead to serious illness or death. Food safety specialists say that the anti-biotic was likely used to treat diseased hives – which is not legal in the US.

Unless you buy honey directly from the manufacturer (e.g. from a farmer’s market or a farm store) where you are able to speak directly to the producers (or should I say cultivators) of the honey, then you are often relying on the truthfulness of the label, and as we know, labels are not always that candid.

The lesson here is that honey is somewhat of a frontier product, not quite living by the rules and imposed ethics of most other processed products. Until legislation is developed to control imports and define what exactly “honey” is, we consumers are best off buying as local as possible, and look for labels that read “raw honey” or labels with some sort of reputable certification – if it exists.

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Raw, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

95 comments

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9:46AM PST on Nov 17, 2011

Good reminder to buy local where possible.

2:47AM PDT on Sep 3, 2011

one good thing about organic honey certification is that the bee hives must not be painted with lead based chemical paints, - because they range far its not perfect, but its better than some of the other known practices from non-organic

11:28PM PDT on Mar 26, 2011

Thank you for a great article! I especially like that you suggest getting your honey at the local farmers market where you can speak to the cultivator. Also looking for 'raw honey', and keeping it raw by not heating it as heating honey kills active enzymes.

11:03AM PDT on Sep 10, 2010

Due to numerous allergies (including bee stings), and no way of being 100% sure where the nectar is gathered from by honey bees, I tend to avoid consuming honey.

11:02AM PDT on Sep 10, 2010

Due to numerous allergies (including bee stings), and no way of being 100% sure where the nectar is gathered from by honey bees, I tend to avoid consuming honey.

12:06AM PDT on Jul 23, 2010

Honey is still one of the most healthy and natural sweeteners out there, and it's good for allergies, bee stings and more. Yes, it can sooth bee stings.

10:27AM PDT on Jul 21, 2010

Really informative! Thanks....

5:18PM PDT on Jul 17, 2010

something i'm very aware of, also i buy only raw or once filtered & unheated honey. best place direct from the farmer.

11:50PM PDT on Jul 15, 2010

So stop using chemicals everywhere else. It's not good for anybody.

10:39PM PDT on Jul 15, 2010

We have some great honey in South Australia. Kangaroo Island honey and honey from the Limestone Coast is very good and excellent quality.

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