Sunday, May 27, 2012


A conversation with an acquaintance yesterday made me realize that many urban residents have never known what it is to eat real comb-fresh raw honey.  They've grown up knowing only the pasteurized, filtered (and frequently adulterated) product sold by most supermarkets under the label of 'honey'. The 'real deal' is about as far from the mass-produced product in terms of taste, quality and health benefits as you can get.  Those of you who've eaten honey produced from the pollen of a particular plant, and which has never been pasteurized or filtered, will know exactly what I mean.  The taste is so superior to the mass-market product that it's in a class of its own.

What many people don't know is that there's a major international honey smuggling racket.  All too often what we buy from supermarket shelves is a mass-produced, chemically 'enhanced', additive-laced concoction that comes from unknown (and possibly untrustworthy) sources, and may even be damaging to our health.  The Globe and Mail reported last year:

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.

. . .

Industry insiders began tracking the questionable cargo years ago when low-priced honey from surprising countries infiltrated the market. But federal law enforcement officials have only begun to home in.

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.

“We see a flood, an avalanche of [laundered] honey continuing,” said Ron Phipps, a global honey markets expert. “It has created a two-tier market where cheap, illegal honey … has a huge competitive advantage,” he said, adding: “It’s really putting the domestic industry on the verge of crisis.”

At stake is more than just a sweet industry.

Honeybees are responsible for pollinating millions of acres of agricultural crops, including fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and legumes, worth $20-billion annually in the U.S. alone. More than a quarter of the human diet hinges on those crops.

“If we lose our honey industry in the U.S., there’s going to be massive food shortages like we haven’t seen before,” said Richard Adee, a South Dakota beekeeper who owns 80,000 honeybee colonies, the largest operation in the U.S.

Mr. Phipps said the worry is not overblown.

“It’s really an issue, for America, of national security,” he said. “It concerns the security of the food supply and the ability of the nation to feed itself.”

There's more at the link.  I highly recommend reading the whole article.  In its own way it's reminiscent of the ongoing olive oil scandal, which we discussed in these pages a couple of months ago.

I can't urge you too strongly to be very careful of the cheap honey sold by most supermarkets.  The low-cost stuff is highly likely to have been adulterated in some way(s).  If it's pasteurized and/or filtered, the same caution applies.  Filtered honey is almost impossible to track back to its point of origin, because filtering removes all traces of pollens and other unique identifying factors.  The flavor is often modified by adding sweeteners to disguise the taste of other additives.  Furthermore, many of the health benefits of honey (including its antibacterial and antiseptic properties) are removed or destroyed by such processing.

Miss D. and I recently bought two large (2½-pound) jars of natural honey from the local Farmers' Market.  Both were from small, private US producers, one in Florida, one local.  One jar contained honey produced by bees fed on orange blossom pollen, the other was simply labeled as 'wildflower' honey.  They were guaranteed - both on the label and by the seller, who assured us that she knew the suppliers - to be 'natural', without additives.  Most important of all, neither jar's honey had been pasteurized or filtered.  We absolutely love the taste!  Both work really well as sweeteners in tea or coffee, and on bread they're sublime.  There's absolutely no comparison between their flavor and the sickly-sweet blandness of mass-market pasteurized, filtered, adulterated so-called 'honey'.

If you've never tasted that difference for yourself, do please take the time to seek out a jar of the real stuff.  You may have to go out of your way (e.g. to a local farmers' market or a small private supplier) to find it, but it's worth the effort and the higher price.  In this as in so many cases, you really do get what you pay for - and once you've experienced what honey should taste like, you'll never want to buy the cheap stuff again!



ZerCool said...

Like you, we buy our honey at the local farmer's market. The supplier we prefer has hives all over the area, and runs his own booth every weekend. The selection of flavors is fantastic: spring flower, orange blossom, fall flower, wildflower, and my personal favorite - buckwheat. It's a very rich, "dark" flavor. Especially good for baking or spread on fresh homemade bread.

Another apiary nearby which I highly recommend is Tremblay Apiaries. The owner was deeply involved in Appleseed for several years and is a freedom-loving libertarian like many of us... and he ships his honey for those interested. (Why do we buy from the other one? Convenience, mostly. Tremblay's doesn't run a booth at the market, and our schedules haven't meshed lately.

Lokidude said...

You're not kidding about the flavor of fresh honey. When I was a boy, a family friend had a couple hives, and I got to help with processing a few times. There's nothing quite like tasting honey straight from the tap.

These days, my personal honey of choice comes from a fairly local (probably 80 or so miles distant) Trappist monastery. Nothing in a bear-shaped bottle comes close.

skreidle said...

We've gotten excellent honey at our local farmers markets over the last few years, and as it turns out, one such vendor lives (with his hives) not more than a mile up the road! Any time we need more honey, all we have to do is go ring his doorbell with a few dollars in hand. :)

Also, we were recently gifted with a bottle of Orange Blossom Honey from the Savannah Bee Company, who produce a wide array of excellent honey products. :)

Anonymous said...

An added benefit is that, sealed and stored properly, honey will keep very well for a long time. Excellent survival store.


The Lost Goat said...

The local farmer's market is a great place to get local honey, but you may not need to go so far. Our hometown grocery store has local honey, and even the Super1Foods has honey made in this state. Just check around on the labels and you may be able to find something.

ZerCool said...

Goat: you're absolutely right about that... we hit the farm market every so often for all the OTHER good stuff that's there. :-D

TheAxe said...

Zercool, when I click the tremblay link you posted it comes up blank.

ZerCool said...

Axe ... not sure what to say. It works here?

Old NFO said...

Farm market only for me too! :-)

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Buy mine from a local beekeeper. $10 a quart. His sales room is also his processing room.

TheAxe said...

It's coming up blank when I copy/paste from your comment too. Weird. Maybe it's just my browser.

skreidle said...

TheAxe: Gotta be -- works fine for me in Chrome.

trailbee said...

Ours comes from Oakland, about 80 miles away. Love the taste. I'm thinking I'd like to get a hive, just one, and see if I can make it work for us. Reading the book now.
Peter, you never mentioned Royal Jelly which is also being adulterated. There is a seller in Sacramento who will ship it frozen, but once I figured out where it came from, I stopped. No point to it.

Anonymous said...

The LittleRed family has friends with an suburban hive, so we get really local honey. There is some speculation that eating local honey can also help with local allergies - specific pollens. If it's dust [waves paw not holding a hankie], not so much. But it still tastes good.