Companies target imports of illegal honey
True Source Honey Initiative takes on adulterated products
By OLIVIA MUNOZ
For The Associated Press
FRESNO, Calif. -- Honey companies and importers are launching a program this month to try to stop the flow of illegally sourced honey into the country.
The True Source Honey Initiative is an effort by a handful of producers and importers looking to certify the origin and purity of the honey sold to U.S. consumers in jars and products such as cereals, snacks and glazes.
"Where food comes from has become increasingly important to people," said Jill Clark, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania-based Dutch Gold Honey, one of the partners in the True Source Honey Initiative.
Americans consume about 350 million pounds of honey per year, but domestic honey can't meet that demand. U.S. honey producers only made 144 million pounds in 2009, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That figure was down 12 percent from 2008.
This has created a booming market for importers -- and temptation for a few who want to circumvent taxes on foreign honey. In September, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago announced the indictments of 11 German and Chinese executives and six companies on charges that they avoided nearly $80 million in honey tariffs and sold honey tainted with banned antibiotics. It was the largest in a string of federal actions in the past two years directed at thwarting the illegal honey trade.
Large tariffs are in place for honey from China because for a while that country was dumping low-cost honey into the U.S., shutting out domestic producers, said Eric Mussen, a beekeeping expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
"Honey was coming in from China at 35 cents a pound, and American producers were having to sell their honey at a loss, not even covering their costs," Mussen said.
The industry asked the government to intervene, he said.
"Then we started getting honey that was suspect. It was coming in from places like Thailand, too tropical to produce the type of honey coming in or that don't even have enough bee colonies to produce the amount of honey being imported," Mussen said.
U.S. officials figured out that a honey surplus from China was being routed through South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and other countries that didn't face the same duties, he said.
All the True Source Honey Initiative wants is that the countries of origin and ingredients inside the honey jar match the product, Clark said.
Certification would come after a third-party annual audit that would cost honey packers and exporters $2,000 to $4,000. The initiative is finalizing a seal that it would offer those who pass the audits to place on their packaging.
U.S. beekeepers would not be directly subjected to an audit, Clark said.
Currently, origin labeling requirements for honey require that packaged honey bearing any combination of USDA marks or statements must also display the name or names of the one or more countries of origin.
Some states have set other standards for honey, mainly those that define "pure honey" in a bid to curb the sale of products that have that label but contain corn syrup or other additives.
Florida was the first state to adopt such standards in 2009, and was quickly followed by California, Wisconsin and, most recently, North Carolina. Similar standards were proposed in at least 12 other states, including North and South Dakota, which account for roughly one-third of U.S. honey.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a petition seeking a national "pure honey" standard.
The 2009 U.S. honey crop was valued at $208 million but beekeeping in the U.S. has been on the steady decline. The U.S. is down from 6 million bee colonies after World War II to about 2.5 million today, Mussen said.
"It went the way of the farm," he said.
But some young producers are getting in the game.
"I don't know a lot of young beekeepers," Matthew Cary said, laughing on a rainy December day after delivering jars of his Matthew's Honey to a nearby farmers' market.
The 22-year-old has 200 hives in Lindsay, Calif., a town of 11,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley. California is third in honey production after the Dakotas.
"Honey work is very difficult but it's very rewarding," Cary said. "It's taking care of something and seeing it blossom. It's being a farmer."
Matthew Cary has been making honey for about a year and a half. He is following in the footsteps of his father, Norman Cary, who has run Cary's Honey Farms since before his son was born, selling honey wholesale to companies throughout the country who package it under various labels or put it into food.
Norman Cary also started young, at 13 with two hives he kept as a hobby. By 19, he had 1,000 hives.
Today, Cary's Honey Farms has 34 employees, 15,000 hives, and produces more than a million pounds of honey a year, said Norman Cary, 54.
"I've worked awful hard at this, and it's nice to pass it on," he said.
Norman Cary remembers the hard days of competing with cheap honey imports.
"It's difficult when you know you've got a quality product and you're selling it for less than it's worth," Norman Cary said. "I hope companies buy into this program to keep things fair."