Saturday, February 12, 2011

Honey Laundering

    Among the problems we experience with a globalized food system is that what were once local issues rapidly become international or global. A case in point would be Maple Leaf Foods in Canada discovering that several of their machines for processing deli meat were harbouring Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Fifty years ago this would have been, at worst, a provincial problem. but by 2008, Maple Leaf Foods was shipping deli meats not only across Canada, but into the US as well, making this, at least potentially, an international outbreak from a single point source. The CBC (which has actually spent a lot of time on food safety issues) was reporting that Federal inspectors usually spent less than 2 hours a day at the plant in the months before the outbreak of the illness, sometimes as little as 15 minutes. This is, of course, a result of conservative pressure to reduce regulation and enforcement on the part of governments, and move responsibility for enforcement onto the businesses affected.
    The Globe and Mail (05 January 2011) is reporting that that honey we are purchasing either in liquid form or in consumer foods, may not be what we think it is. Jessica Leeder, global food reporter for the G&M, writes that much of the honey we consume is Chinese in origin, and does not meet North American food standards.
What consumers don’t know is that honey doesn’t usually come straight – or pure – from the hive. Giant steel drums of honey bound for grocery store shelves and the food processors that crank out your cereal are in constant flow through the global market. Most honey comes from China, where beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste.
None of this is on the label. Rarely will a jar of honey say “Made in China.” Instead, Chinese honey sold in North America is more likely to be stamped as Indonesian, Malaysian or Taiwanese, due to a growing multimillion dollar laundering system designed to keep the endless supply of cheap and often contaminated Chinese honey moving into the U.S., where tariffs have been implemented to staunch the flow and protect its own struggling industry. (from Honey laundering: The sour side of nature's golden sweetener)

Look at what Leeder is reporting here:
  • Honey contaminated with antibiotics 
  •  taste masked with sugar or HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
  • Inaccurate labelling
And that's just two paragraphs.

Leeder reports that Chinese honey is being "washed" through other countries like India and Malaysia; countries that had no appreciable honey exports a few years ago and are now global players.

     There are tremendous economic pressures which encourage this kind of cheating. The massive demand for a "natural" sweetener (primarily seen as a non-white sugar, non-HFCS sweetener), US tariff walls combined with a failing North American bee population, and a lack of Chinese regulation on agricultural production combined with their export-led economy all mean that there are significant financial incentives to game the system.
     But the globalized food system encourages this behaviour. With a goal of sourcing from lowest-cost environments and selling in highest-return environments, producers are looking the other way in order to maintain their profit margins. The US requires about 200 million pounds (about 90.7 million kilos) of honey imports a year (Canada exports between 9 and 13 million kilos, or 20-30 million pounds of honey to the US each year), and sources the majority of that honey from overseas.
     Because of its unique composition and chemical properties, honey is suitable for long term storage and is easily assimilated even after long preservation. Honey, and objects immersed in honey, have been preserved for decades and even centuries. The key to preservation is limiting access to humidity. In its cured state, honey has a sufficiently high sugar content to inhibit fermentation. If, however, the honey is exposed to moist air, its hydrophilic properties will pull moisture into the honey, eventually diluting it to the point that fermentation can begin.Chinese producers have been caught diluting honey, by injecting honey with water, heating it, and passing it through ultrafine carbon or ceramic filters, and then distilling this into syrup. This process does seem to clear the honey of antibiotic residues, but also tends to remove other features of honey, like taste and scent.
     Thankfully, at least in Canada, honey is one of those foods that can be sourced locally. Here on Vancouver Island we have Babe's Honey Farm, which offers a wide range of pollen-specific honeys, like cranberry, blueberry, and fireweed. Bees are also a fairly straightforward insect to husband--a half-dozen houses away from where we live is a backyard hive. And although we're used to seeing the traditional box or Langstroth hive, there is a new model called a "top-bar hive" that shows some promise in reducing bee deaths from varroa mites.
     This is one of those areas where we can ignore commercial production and do as well or better in our own environments. Honey is only a secondary advantage of having bees; primary is their pollination of crops. And you don't necessarily need honey bees for pollination. Mason bees are an excellent pollinator and, with a small hive, do very well in backyards (and, with no honey to defend, seldom sting). Using honey bees, acreages and smallholdings can easily become "hobby producers," particularly using alternative hives like the top-bar, or even traditional hives. As commercial honey bee populations continue to crash across North America, such small operations are only going to become more and more vital to continued food production.


  1. Interesting article! I no longer buy any food or food storage items from China if I can avoid it. Too many horror stories. Did you see the news article a few weeks ago about the rice that was adulterated with plastic rice because the plastic was cheaper?

  2. That was a story I missed. Do you remember where you saw it?
    It doesn't surprise me though. We regard food as just another commodity in international trade, so the goal is to maximize profit rather than maximizing people fed. If that means plastic in the rice, or melamine in milk products, then that's what will happen. There's no connection between food consumers and producers, and without that sense of community, of linkage, abuses will happen.