Honey is the third-most-faked food in the world, behind milk and olive oil? In 2020, Insider, published an article highlighting the world of fraudulent honey titled, "Honey is one of the most faked foods in the world, and the U.S. government isn't doing much to fix it."
Fake or adulterated honey is a huge problem plaguing the beekeeping industry and consumer confidence and is poised to be at the forefront of a public health fiasco.
The manufacturer of these faux honey either dilute real honey with syrup derived from plants, like high-fructose corn syrup or beet syrup, or they chemically modify the sugars in those syrups to make them look like real honey.
Adulterated honey ultimately robs consumers of the natural health benefits found in pure raw honey. For more than 10,000 years, as civilizations rose across the earth, honey has been prized for its medicinal properties. Unfortunately, these highly-regarded health benefits are stripped away with careless and reckless abandon, which drives honey prices down and ripples financial strain through the industry, resulting in fewer colonies and fewer all-natural, pure honeys on the market.
It is a vicious cycle that leads to less authentic honey in the market, directly impacting consumers globally.
"Honey launderers" fool authenticity tests by making chemical modifications, making it hard to trace where the honey came from. In February 2013, the US Justice Department charged two major honey importers in "Operation Honeygate."
Five people and two honey-processing companies were charged with dumping honey imports from China, including some that were adulterated with unauthorized antibiotics. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations announced the charges in what they called the second phase of an investigation that resulted in charges against 14 people and several companies in 2008.
The importers — Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms — shipped fake or adulterated Chinese honey through other countries in Asia and Europe before sending them to the United States.
The honey-laundering scheme, which helped the companies avoid $180 million in shipping duties, hid the honey's true origin, leaving few to suspect it wasn't real.
As of this publication, it is the biggest incident of food fraud in U.S. history.
Now, almost ten years later, a lot of our honey on store shelves is still fake.
The exact amount of fake honey in the world is up for debate. An analysis by the Honey Authenticity Project, an association of activists and industry members, places the number of fake or adulterated honey at 33%. A 2018 study of honey for sale in Australia found that 27% of the products tested were faked or had other ingredients mixed in.
US-specific numbers are harder to come by, but one lawyer, who's behind several class-action lawsuits accusing honey brands of fraud, puts the figure as high as 70%.
In early 2020, Vice tested honey brands in several U.S. grocery stores and found that many of them were adulterated, but the threat extends beyond those little golden bears lining the supermarket shelves, Adee said.
Honey plays a huge role in the American diet, with about 400 million pounds of it ending up in our food every year, much of it in processed foods like cereal.
Beekeepers in the United Kingdom have been hit particularly hard. The U.K. received 47% of Europe's honey imports from China in 2018, but a Honey Authenticity Project lab analysis of 11 supermarket brands found that none complied with E.U. labeling standards.
Adulterated honey also ultimately drives honey prices down, beekeepers say. Some beekeepers find it's more worthwhile to have their bees focus on pollination rather than honey production. It's a vicious cycle that leads to less authentic honey in the market.
How 'honey laundering' works
"Honey laundering" became widespread when Chinese laboratories began modifying high-fructose corn syrups to look like pure honey.
The sugars in these syrups — known as C4 sugars — became popular for honey counterfeiters in the 1970s, with the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, according to Richard Anderson, director of Siratech, a private lab in Texas that detects fake and adulterated honey.
But they were soon easily detected in tests, so honey counterfeiters modified their methods to use syrups developed from plants with C3 sugars, like rice, beets, or cassava.
The adulterated syrups can be used to dilute a smaller batch of real honey. Earlier honey authentication tests analyzed the pollen inside honey and traced them back to its source. But some honey launderers have gotten smart, treating honey so that it's difficult to trace.
"They either buy pollens or blend custom-made syrups with honey that already has pollen in it," Adee said. "It seems like every time there's a new test that comes out, it's not long that they'll find a way that they can beat it."
The 2013 federal investigation found that Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms had used countries like Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Turkey, and Ukraine as intermediaries to disguise that they were bringing in fake honey from China.
Unfortunately, that practice persists even now, according to an October 2017 report published in the American Bee Journal. The analysis compared honey imports from those countries to beehives and found that the numbers didn't add up.
Both Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms ultimately agreed to implement corporate compliance programs to resolve their cases.
Groeb Farms, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in October 2013. The company Natural American Foods — now called Sweet Harvest Foods — bought some of its assets, including its manufacturing equipment, in a bankruptcy sale.
The company now claims its honey is tested by Intertek, a global leader in product testing, inspection, and certification.
Since 'Honeygate,' the industry has moved toward transparency. But experts say it isn't enough.
The honey industry has two ways of testing whether honey is fake or adulterated: checking its origin or chemical composition. Checking the origin of honey is relatively straightforward. For example, if a manufacturer says honey came from one place, but lab tests show it came from another, then we know that something is wrong.
But complying with traceability certification organizations — like True Source Honey — is voluntary. And the USDA's grading system for honey isn't enforced and doesn't require inspections to carry the "A" grade.
Honey producers can also chemically alter honey to confuse chemical traceability tests. The best way to test for honey authenticity is with more sophisticated chemical tests, like SIRA, or nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
"Individually, the people that make up the industry, some are very interested in authenticating their honey, and I would have to say that some aren't interested," Anderson said. "The ones that have been burned don't want to get burned again, but those who want to buy the cheapest stuff they can find and make the highest mark-up they can make — there are those guys too."
When asked about testing honey imports, the USDA directed Insider to the Food and Drug Administration, the department responsible for enforcing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. The FDA can deny or detain honey imported into the U.S. without physical inspection. However, the company must get the honey tested — often from a third-party lab — to support import approval. The FDA doesn't run its own verification tests.
The FDA requires additives to be listed as ingredients for honey but currently has no legal enforcement mechanism for those rules.
The FDA also doesn't have a great definition for authentic honey in the first place, leaving ambiguity that allows manufacturers to harvest honeycombs before the honey fully ripens. The FDA only acts against honey manufacturers if it detects a potential food safety issue.
For us at World Honey Market, our goal since our start in 2007 has been to produce the finest quality honey available.
We can be certain that the products we produce and sell are 100% Pure, Raw Honey. Our process is simple. We use our bees, our honey. Nothing in between. Nothing added.
As we look toward the future, we will continue to expand our wholesale and retail distribution network while at the same time aiming to be at the center of information surrounding the beekeeping industry and becoming a gold standard for honey authenticity in the United States and across the globe. Our commitment is not only to the industry but to consumers and producers alike.
For more information on World Honey Market, please visit our website at WorldHoneyMarket.com