Though the articles appeared last week, I still nominate "honey-laundering" for best phrase of 2009. The Seattle Intelligencer just published a series of articles on the honey trade last week (via the Ethicurean). And it's ugly. Says the PI:
The business is plagued by foreign hucksters and shady importers who rip off conscientious U.S. packers with honey diluted with sugar water or corn syrup -- or worse, tainted with pesticides or antibiotics.Charming. Once again China plays the heavy, having used a powerful, toxic (and illegal for food production) antibiotic to combat a bee plague in the 90s. This in addition to all sorts of other bad behavior like watering down the honey or mis-labeling it "rice syrup" to avoid inspections and tariffs. As a result, no one wants their honey, though it remains legal to import it. But with US honey consumption more than double domestic production, there's a roaring smuggling trade going on. The operations themselves would make John le Carre proud:
In August, 350 drums containing 223,300 pounds of Chinese honey were shipped from Hubei Yangzijiang Apiculture Co. in Wuhan, China, and loaded on a ship in Shanghai. Within a month, the shipment arrived at Tuglakabad, an import warehouse near New Delhi.But it's not just about where the honey comes from. Unlike with maple syrup or other products, there is no "grading" system or even true organic standards. Any claim or "grade" on a honey label is no better than a lie. Ouch.
There, according to Indian Customs reports, the honey marked "for re-export purposes" was accepted by Apis India Natural Products. The drums still contained instructions from the Chinese company, saying the load was to be shipped to America's biggest and oldest honey cooperative -- Iowa-based Sue Bee Honey. Two containers of the honey reportedly were shipped to Norfolk, Va., and three more went to Jacksonville, Fla.; all were later routed to Iowa.
So, yes, let's all buy our honey at our local farmers market. It's clear from the series that, unless you're buying truly local honey from a trusted source, you simply cannot know where the honey is really from and what's really in it. Certainly, any private-label supermarkert honey is suspect.
But this story is really about a food system that's diffuse, international and impossible to regulate - in other words, broken. After all, what's pushing the honey supply to the limit isn't really that Americans are using honey instead of sugar in their coffee. It's that food companies have adopted honey as a value-enhancing ingredient in processed food. And when food companies want something, they want a lot of it. Markets usually respond when demand outstrips supply with more supply. But when your suppliers are all dying and none of the links in the supply chain have any interest in blowing the whistle on bad product, you get "honey-laundering" instead.
What's scary about this situation is that there isn't a clear solution. More regulation may be on the way - Florida, for example, is trying to come up with honey standards. But are we really about to invest in a vast army of inspectors defending a set of unassailable standards for imported honey? And even if we did, that "seal of approval" 1) would be extremely valuable 2) would demand a premium price and 3) would attract an even larger army of counterfeiters and smugglers interesting in cashing in on the ever more valuable honey trade. Which is where we already are.
And they tell me locavores are the problem.
Photo by LollyKnit used under a CC license