Expert cautions: brand name honey likely of Chinese origin

Posted by
August 1, 2013

If you’ve ever purchased honey from a supermarket or a big box store, chances are pretty good that the honey isn’t what you thought it was. But a bill pending in the U.S. Senate may help put a stop to honey identity theft in the U.S , where there are currently “no standards” or requirements for truth in labeling for honey, according to Texas A&M anthropology professor Vaughn Bryant.

Senate Bill 662, if passed in its current lengthy form, contains a provision that “would require the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Customs to do a better job of making sure what goes on the label is in fact what’s in the jar,” said Bryant.

Bryant, who is also a “melissopalynologist” –  an expert detective in identifying pollen and its source – may be one of the biggest supporters of the bill. He is hoping the U.S., which is one of the “few countries in the top honey-producing nations that does not do any kind of analysis,” will finally set some rules where honey is concerned.

“As far as I know I’m the only person in the U.S. who looks at honey to try and identify where it comes from,” Bryant told Food Identity Theft in a phone interview. “There is no one in the U.S. Customs who does it, and no one in the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) who does it.”

What Bryant looks for, based on decades of experience in distinguishing it, is pollen,  the microscopic specks that bees leave behind in their honey that tell the story of where that honey came from and what those bees foraged on.

Without pollen, the origin of honey is impossible to trace, and origin is of prime importance to both beekeepers and consumers, especially if that honey is from China, the world’s number one honey-producing country. Chinese honey is cheap and often contaminated with drugs, pesticides or even diluted with sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. In an attempt to keep low-cost Chinese honey from flooding the U.S. market, a big import tariff was imposed in 2001. Since pollen-free honey can’t be traced, a trick called “transshipping,” is used, where Chinese honey is shipped to other countries with fake documents and passed off as coming from a tariff-free location.

If it’s ultra-filtered, it’s probably from China

In 2011, Food Safety News reported that more than three-fourths of the honey sold in the U.S. (including 100 percent of the honey from Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid and CVS drug stores) was “ultrafilered,” so highly processed that it was totally devoid of pollen.  Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, was quoted in the article as saying, “in my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey…”

Bryant, who conducted the testing for that report, said that he has never found any pollen in honey he has tested bearing the Walmart, CVS or Sue Bee label, and he has “looked at a lot of Sue Bee honey.”

But aside from missing pollen, Bryant also takes issue with honey that is mislabeled as to where it’s from.

Recalling an incident in a “big box grocery store where I live” he encountered a large display of honey with a sign saying it was from Texas. “So I purchased some and took it to the lab and tested it.” What Bryant found was that not only wasn’t the honey from the specific Texas location where it was advertised as having originated, but it wasn’t even from Texas. However, when he went back to tell the manager of the store what he does for a living and what he had discovered, he was told “so what.”

“I said ‘don’t you care that this is wrong’ and the manager just walked away. And to this day it still says ‘Texas’ on the sign,” he said.

His advice to consumers is not to purchase honey from large retail chains, but instead to buy from local beekeepers. “Unfortunately even there we find people who are cheating,” he said.  But “you stand a much better chance by buying local honey that it might really be what it is supposed to be.”

And if the honey provision in Bill 662 passes, the U.S. might just catch up to the quality standards imposed by food safety organizations in most other countries.