The Seedy World of Honey Smuggling (And How Science Is Fighting Back)

Illustration for article titled The Seedy World of Honey Smuggling (And How Science Is Fighting Back)

Honey. We've all heard about the bee disappearance and wondered whether we'd be seeing a honey shortage. Well, here's another reason to be worried about the sweet, sweet bee juice: honey laundering.


Top image: african bees like honey by Evan Bench/flickr/ CC By 2.0

Yes, honey laundering. Real honey is almost magical, but we may not be getting the good stuff. A fascinating New York Times article delves deep into the world of secret honey imports. In 2001, high tariffs were imposed on honey from China — triple the previous rate, in fact — in response to complaints from domestic honey producers that they were flooding the market. At the same time, completely coincidentally, honey imports from other countries, some without large bee populations, spiked. And so did imports of fake honey.

As a result, honey is now being tested by the Customs and Border Protection's lab in Savannah, Georgia:

In recent years, scientists have demonstrated that subtle chemical variations in many foods, including honey — undetectable to the tongue or the naked eye — can give a strong indication of where it originated. The C.B.P.'s analytic work depends, in part, on these naturally occurring geographic "tracers."

Once a sample is diluted, the liquid is pumped into a device called a mass spectrometer that is about the size of an office copier. Inside, a nebulizer turns the sample into a fine mist over heated argon, a process that yields a distinct signature of trace elements.

The spectrometer can measure chromium, iron, copper and other elements to several parts per quadrillion. Each combination of trace metals reflects the composition of certain soils: The elements were taken up by flowering plants and then foraged by bees.

Soils vary from region to region, and by statistically comparing the presence of some 40 different elements to a reference database collected by C.B.P. attachés and employees, the scientists can ascertain the probable origins of many samples.

This not only determines if Chinese honey is being "laundered" by countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Russia, but also the ratio of real honey to rice syrup in the substances being imported:

"An importer could present goods to Customs and say, 'This is 90 percent rice syrup, 10 percent honey,' and Customs really has no way of knowing," said Michael J. Coursey, a lawyer in Washington who has represented American honey producers.

... In 2011, the government accused three companies of importing millions of dollars' worth of rice fructose blend that in fact was mostly taxable honey. The importers said the product was less than 50 percent honey.

The scientists at the Savannah lab swung into action, producing evidence that pollen abundance in the blends showed the substance to be mostly honey. But defense lawyers challenged the research on scientific grounds.


Read the whole thing at the New York Times.


Honey Smuggler sounds like a euphemism.

Or a band name.