Honey laced with quinolone antibiotics causes severe pain for thousands of people.

Honey Laundering: Tainted product still slips easily into U.S.

Officials are rarely notified

By ANDREW SCHNEIDER
P-I SENIOR CORRESPONDENT

Concealing discoveries of contaminated imported honey is immoral, unethical and often illegal — and it happens far too often, U.S. honey producers say.

“It doesn’t take a wizard to determine whether there are bad things in the honey we handle, nor a hero to do what it takes to keep it from our food supply,” said Mark Brady, a Texas beekeeper who sits on the National Honey Board.

“If we buy Chinese honey, as we do far too often, we know it may contain chloramphenicol or some other antibiotic that is illegal in any food product,” said Brady, who produces about a million pounds of honey a year. “To find it and not report it is criminal.”

Two-thirds of the honey Americans consume is imported and almost half of that, regardless of what’s on the label, comes from China, the Seattle P-I reported last month.

The newspaper’s five-month investigation into honey laundering — the intentional mislabeling of the country of origin — found that tons of Chinese honey coming into the U.S. is tainted with banned antibiotics.

But when the contamination is discovered by the industry through internal testing, insiders say, federal health or customs officials are almost never notified, and the honey ends up being dumped back on the market.

That practice is wrong, said Kenneth Haff, the newly elected president of American Honey Producers.

“We don’t want to risk this tainted honey ever getting packed and distributed for human consumption,” said Haff, who believes the industry could solve the problem if companies simply alert the Food and Drug Administration each time they discover a tainted shipment.

Instead, some major packers simply return bad honey to the importer, naively trusting them to destroy the shipment and not seek another buyer.

Said Haff: “We run the risk of the importer trying to resell this same adulterated honey for a cheaper price somewhere else.”

That happens all too often. Court documents the P-I obtained after the arrests last year of two Chicago-based executives with Alfred L. Wolff, a German food distributor, reveal how rampant the sale and resale of bad honey is.

Testimony from federal investigators and informants offer a glimpse into a typical deal: Wolff sold Chinese honey to a U.S. honey producer. The packer tested the shipment and found traces of antibiotics. Wolff took the honey back and resold it to another packer who didn’t test for contaminants.

If convicted, the Wolff executives face up to five years in prison for conspiring to falsify country of origin on the Chinese shipments.

In its series, the P-I reported that it had received shipping papers showing that Chinese honey, falsely labeled as a product of India, was sold to several U.S. honey packers, including one of the nation’s largest — Sue Bee Honey Association.

Sue Bee Vice President Bill Huser said 315 different beekeepers supply 60 percent of the 40 million pounds of honey the Iowa-based company sells each year. The rest is imported.

To protect consumers, Huser said, the company does extensive and elaborate testing on the imported honey, finding shipments laced with chloramphenicol, an illegal antibiotic, about once a month.

When it’s found, he said, it’s sent back to the broker who imported it.

Won’t report it to FDA

That doesn’t sit well with some members of the cooperative. Several told the P-I that returning tainted honey to the marketplace is wrong. They said the issue has been raised in recent years, but the company has refused to change its policy.

Bill Allibone, Sue Bee’s president, said the company has no intention of telling government regulators about the bad honey it finds.

It’s not really Sue Bee’s honey, he said, “because technically, it’s still (the importer’s) property until we pay for it.

“We have not notified the FDA in the past because we don’t have title to that property,” Allibone said.

“We deal with a core group of suppliers that have long, established ties in the import business, and we’re assuming that when we reject a load of honey, they’ll return it to the people they purchased it from.”

Allibone said he has no idea whether the tainted honey is resold to other U.S. packers. Asked whether the company had an obligation to take action to protect the public health, the president repeated: “It’s just not our honey.”

Medical experts agree that the presence of contaminants in honey is a health concern. A small number of people can be sickened or killed by eating even trace amounts of the banned antibiotics, the FDA says in its import alerts on the Chinese honey.

One of them could be Heidi Witherspoon of Seattle, who suffers from a hypersensitivity to quinolones, a class of “flox” antibiotics found in some honey.

“Even the littlest amount sends me into horrible pain, insomnia and twitching,” she said in an e-mail.

John Fretti, a former pharmacy representative from Hummelstown, Pa., also has severe sensitivity to the drugs Chinese beekeepers were using.

“Allowing even the slightest chance that these antibiotics and other drugs can end up in honey on our store shelves is criminal,” Fratti said. “You can’t begin to imagine the pain and harm that can come to us sensitive to those drugs.”

‘We just gave up’

Does the National Honey Board serve as a watchdog for tainted honey? There is considerable debate within the industry on that question.

Bruce Boynton, the chief executive of the board, a trade group created by the U.S. Agriculture Department, said policing honey is the FDA’s job.

“It’s not something we do,” he said. “We have no knowledge about any bad honey out there. That’s not our job, and we never get reports of problems.”

But in 2006, he sent an e-mail to honey board members, warning that tainted honey had been found in stores. In his warning, Boynton wrote that the industry had tested samples taken from products on supermarket shelves and found illegal levels of antibiotics.

“Two samples tested positive for ciprofloxacin at the level of 14.07 (parts per billion) and 5.61 ppb,” Boynton wrote.

In a recent interview, Boynton initially denied any knowledge of the warning. He stressed that the board is “not a regulatory agency” and has no obligation to notify health agencies of potential hazards.

That’s wrong, argues Texas beekeeper Brady.

“If the honey board knows there’s honey in the commercial pipeline that’s contaminated, it has a clear responsibility to report it,” he said.

Sonia Jimenez, who monitors the actions of the honey board for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, first told the P-I that the board “would have no way to know about contaminated honey,” but when told of the CEO’s e-mail, she said further comments would have to come from the agency’s press office, which did not respond.

“It is in the interest of the honey industry to assure that adulterated honey doesn’t get into the marketplace to compete with the legitimate products made by honest producers,” said Martin Stutsman, who heads most of FDA’s efforts at policing adulterated food.

“We encourage industry, upon discovering that a food is adulterated, to let the local FDA office know about the particulars,” he said. “That benefits the honest industry generally and also helps FDA in its enforcement activities to protect the public.”

But blowing the whistle on bad honey at the local level can be difficult.

Eric Olson is one of several Washington state beekeepers who say they’re concerned that slipshod practices by some of the state’s honey packers can endanger everyone’s ability to sell honey.

“There are worrisome things happening all the time,” said Olson, who runs an apiary in Yakima.

“Truck drivers tell us about bringing full semi loads of foreign honey across the border to packers in our state and Oregon. That honey didn’t come from Canadian bees, but it’s sold with a label saying ‘from U.S. and Canadian honey.’ ”

Some beekeepers have reported such practices to state and federal agencies, but “nothing is done,” Olson said.

“We’ve screamed our heads off for so long, so that’s kind of a dead subject. We just gave up.”

SEATTLEPI.COM

 

Read http://newstrust.net/stories/35781/reviews/87795?ref=mpd the P-I’s two-part series investigating fraud in the honey trade online at seattlepi.com/specials/honey.

P-I senior correspondent Andrew Schneider can be reached at 206-448-8218 or andrewschneider@seattlepi.com. Read his Secret Ingredients blog at blog.seattlepi.com/secretingredients
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