Honey laundering: sweet and sickly

Honey’s in everything. Check out any bakery product, sauce, processed food. A little dab of nectar makes anything smoother.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail ran a great feature a few days ago about the international honey cartel – so realistic it could be based in Jersey. Excerpts below:

As crime sagas go, a scheme rigged by a sophisticated cartel of global traders has all the right blockbuster elements: clandestine movements of illegal substances through a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.

What makes this worldwide drama unusual, other than being regarded as part of the largest food fraud in U.S. history, is the fact that honey, nature’s benign golden sweetener, is the lucrative contraband.

Honey has become a staple in the North American diet. Those that do not consume it straight from bear-shaped squeeze bottles eat it regularly whether they know it or not – honey is baked into everything from breakfast cereals to cookies and mixed into sauces and cough drops. Produced by bees from the nectar of flowers and then strained for clarity, honey’s all-natural origin has garnered lofty status among health-conscious consumers who prefer products without refined sweeteners (think white sugar and processed corn syrup). About 1.2 million metric tons of honey is produced worldwide each year.

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.

Savvy honey handlers use a network of Asian countries to “wash” Chinese-origin product – with new packaging and false documents – before shipping it to the U.S. for consumption in various forms.

Fifteen people and six companies spanning from Asia to Germany and the U.S. were recently indicted in Chicago and Seattle for their roles in an $80-million gambit still playing out in the courts. That case has been billed as the largest food fraud in U.S. history. But American beekeepers, already suffering from a bee death epidemic that is killing off a third of their colonies a year, say the flow of suspect imports has not let up.

In the honey world, there are two types of countries: producers and consumers. The United States is one of the largest of the latter, consuming about 400 million pounds of honey a year. Its beekeepers can produce only half that amount leaving exporters to fill the rest. Canada produces about 65 million pounds of honey a year and ships its surplus, 20 to 30 million pounds, south of the border.

China, the world’s largest producer of honey, would seem a natural candidate to fill the gap. But Chinese honey is notorious for containing the banned antibiotic chloramphenicol, used by farmers to keep bees from falling ill. The European Union outlawed Chinese honey imports because of it.

Dilution is another issue. According to Grace Pundyk, author of The Honey Trail, Chinese manufacturers will inject a type of honey with litres of water, heat it, pass it through an ultrafine ceramic or carbon filter, and then distill it into syrup. While it eradicates impurities such as antibiotics, it also denies honey of its essence.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce accused the Chinese honey industry of dumping cheap product into the American market at prices well below the cost of production. Canadians also detected surprisingly low-priced product crossing its own borders.

Australian investigators uncovered the roots of a global conspiracy when they intercepted a large consignment of “Singapore” honey bound for the U.S. in 2002.
At the time, Singapore didn’t produce honey. The shipment was traced back to China, opening the first window into a worldwide scheme in early bloom: The industry had figured out they could launder Chinese honey through neutral countries able to ship into the U.S. without paying tariffs.

 

What’s the worst thing to say to a farmer? Hi, I’m from the government, I’m here to help

We figured out about 15 years ago that the worst thing to say to a farmer was, Hi, I’m from the government, I’m here to help, cause we hung out with farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration apparently hasn’t figured this out, and went all gushy about how the two agencies are sharing people and resources to develop new produce regs.

Farmers across the nation were cleaning themselves after hearing the news from Washington.

USDA’s fresh produce chief will join FDA to develop new food safety rules, as part of a cooperative initiative between FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Today’s announcement comes amid beefed up outreach efforts with key agriculture and safe food stakeholders to better share and exchange produce safety ‘best practices’ and ideas.”

Will this result in fewer sick people? No . Is it complete bureau-speak that no one, especially those that grow fresh produce for a nation, will care about? Yes. Saturday Night Live captured the do-nothingness that has already cloaked the Obama change administration.
 

Women fart, and that’s extra cool in New Zealand

First it was Jamie Lee Curtis flogging Activia yoghurt, and its, uh, ability to restore digestive regularity.

Now New Zealand brewer Tui has shattered one of the great myths of the sexes, with a billboard that reads, "Chicks never fart. Yeah, right.”

A survey of almost 600 women was carried out by Anchor’s low-fat probiotic yoghurt brand Symbio, which is promoting a 14-day programme to reduce digestive problems.

The company says the programme – run through www.abetteryou.co.nz – has already registered 10,000 people.

The study of digestive health has found that 45 per cent of women experienced gas at least two to three times a week, but only 12 per cent of women are likely to tell their friends they’re experiencing some sort of discomfort, even though three-quarters feel embarrassment when it strikes during social situations.

Sue McCarty, chief executive of the Auckland-based Via finishing school, said it was a "complete myth women don’t pass wind."

For those suffering, her advice was: Better out than in. She said women here had less to be concerned about. "We’re in New Zealand, remember. Lots more things are acceptable here than in other cultures."
 

Dougie Downer at the diner table

The microwaving raw frozen breaded chicken thingies turned out to be a huge media story. An outbreak picked up by the Minnesota State Department of Health turned into 32 people sick with the same Salmonella in 12 states, and led to numerous calls for people to be careful with this kind of meal solution, especially when using microwaves.

I did an interview with radio station in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, about microwave cooking the other day, and the host was starting to get frustrated. It went something like this:

“Maybe I should just eat local, fresh food and wash it well and I’ll be safe.”

“No. Local can be safe, but consumers have to ask about microbiological stuff – what do the growers do to keep the dangerous bugs off fresh produce.”

“Oh, well maybe I’ll just be a vegetarian to be safe.”

“No, fresh fruits and vegetables are the biggest source of foodborne illness in North America today.”

“Oh.”

“Look, I’m not trying to be Dougie Downer at the dinner table, I’m just …”

Hysterical laughter at the other end. She called me Dougie Downer for the rest of the interview, and couldn’t stop laughing.

Saturday Night Live on Thursday also covered the issue last night. The clip is available here.