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As much as a third of the honey consumed in the U.S. is smuggled into the country from China through other Asian countries like India. Honey from China can have a number of safety issues, including contaminants like lead and an illegal –and potentially deadly– antibiotic. Many, including some in Congress, say the Food and Drug Administration and other U.S. agencies need to step up regulation and inspection of imported honey.
- Andrew Schneider Senior Public Health Correspondent, Food Safety News
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe U.S. imports more than half of its honey, around 200 million pounds in the past 18 months, and food safety watchdogs say up to a third of our honey may in fact come from China through third countries like India. Since the U.S. puts steep tariffs on honey from China, millions of pounds are relabeled to mask where it really comes from. The problem? A number of contamination issues have been traced to honey from China, including lead and an illegal and potentially deadly antibiotic.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe European union banned honey imported from India a year ago because of this, and food safety watchdogs in this country say the Food and Drug Administration has not taken the steps it should to address the problem of tainted honey ending up on our grocery shelves. Joining us to discuss this by phone from Seattle, Washington in Andrew Schneider.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is the senior public health correspondent for food safety news, a food safety watchdog publication. Andrew won two Pulitzers for his investigative journalism in the past. Andrew Schneider, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDREW SCHNEIDERGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIAndrew, the difficulty in tracing the origins of the honey we import apparently goes back to 2001 and a tariff the U.S. imposed on Chinese honey. Tell us about that.
SCHNEIDERThat pretty much instigated the honey laundering that we're now seeing. The Chinese honey producers were flooding the U.S. market with low-cost government-subsidized honey, and it dearly endangered the U.S. honey producers, the beekeepers, so a tariff of a buck twenty a pound was imposed on the Chinese honey. At that point there was no concern, or no known concern about the, uh, possible contamination with the antibiotics and heavy metals.
NNAMDIWell, around that same time as the tariff, Chinese beekeepers began using antibiotics on their hives. Why?
SCHNEIDERThere was a massive epidemic of a fast-moving disease that just swept through millions of colonies in China, and they only thing they could think of to stop that was an animal antibiotic that they purchased from India, and they permeated the hives, and it did stop the disease. But the remnants of that antibiotic exist today, and according to people in China, there are still beekeepers that use that to fight off disease.
SCHNEIDERSo that's how the animal antibiotic contamination occurred. The issue with heavy metals, in this case lead, is just a new discovery that the Europeans have found about a year and a half ago.
NNAMDIBut there are a lot of antibiotics in our food. What's the problem with this particular one, Chloramphenicol?
SCHNEIDERThis is -- well, for one thing, the FDA disallows any animal antibiotics in food products. I understand exactly what you're saying, and that's a really great question. In this particular case, there is stringent laws within the FDA saying you can't have this particular antibiotic, or the two or three in this class, are harmful only to a small percentage of people like maybe one out of 35,000. But for that one out of 35,000 it can be deadly. The reactions are really significant, and most often with children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
NNAMDIAnd you've mentioned the lead contamination as well. Could you go over again how does honey get contaminated with lead?
SCHNEIDERChinese have a system of honey producers that are comprised of thousands, if not tens of thousands of small beekeepers throughout the country, or throughout the temperate regions of the country. They gather their honey in tin buckets, and they're soldered in lead, and it'll sit there and wait in the bucket until a broker -- a collection truck from the brokerage -- honey brokerage firm comes along and empties into other containers.
SCHNEIDERThis is pretty simple to address, and they are making efforts now to use plastic containers instead of the solder lined tin ones, and it was the Europeans -- the European Commission that found this particular contamination when it banned all Indian honey. There were three reasons why the ban was imposed and why it exists today. One was the animal contamination. The other was the heavy metal from lead.
SCHNEIDERBut the most pressing one was that the honey they were getting from India was ultrafiltered, meaning it was put at a high temperature, high pressure, to remove all aspects of pollen, and the Europeans determined that without the pollen, there was no way to actually prove, or document the origin of that honey. So they outlaw ultrafiltered honey routinely anyhow. That's why -- sorry.
NNAMDIIndeed, you've interviewed industry people who say that the 45 million pounds of honey imported from India should be a red flag for the Food and Drug Administration. Why?
SCHNEIDERWell, the variety of reasons that are being raised by the honey experts, the scientists that study this, during the first six months of the year, the U.S. imported 43 million pounds of honey. Of that, 38 million pounds came from India. Experts in what India can produce documented the fact that it doesn't have the capabilities to produce anywhere near that volume of honey. They just don't have the resource. They don't have the colonies -- the bee colonies.
SCHNEIDERSo the honey's gotta be coming from somewhere else, and China is the most likely source of this. Now, of course, some of the Chinese -- I'm sorry, some of the Indian companies just adamantly deny that there's any Chinese honey involved whatsoever. However, the food safety investigators both in their country and in the U.S. that have looked at this, it's clear to them that this stuff is coming through China -- coming from China, being laundered in India in this particular case, to avoid the tariffs and the additional scrutiny that comes because of concerns for Chinese honey.
NNAMDIOur guest is Andrew Schneider. He's the senior public health correspondent for Food Safety News, a food safety watchdog publication. He's won two Pulitzers for his investigative journalism, and he introduced us, or we've been introduced to a new term, honey laundering, because of honey coming into this country that is supposed to be from India, but is very difficult to be believed that it is coming from India.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, should test imported honey for contamination? 800-433-8850. Andrew Schneider, is Chinese honey coming into the U.S. a smuggling issue or a food safety issue?
SCHNEIDERWell, it's both. I mean, it's clearly an economic issue, and several members of the Senate have held hearings last year, or earlier this year, looking at transshipped products including honey from China. And to avoid, you know, the tariffs they avoid paying can total millions of dollars in lost revenue. So it's an economic issue. The health community is more concerned about the quality, the safety of the honey that's being imported. So you have both those concerns.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What steps do you think should be taken to make sure we know where imported foods are from? 800-433-8850, or you could go to our website kojoshow.org to answer or raise a question there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or e-mail to email@example.com. Andrew Schneider, there are about a dozen major honey packers here in the U.S. How many do you estimate from your reporting are involved in this apparently illegal trade?
SCHNEIDERWell, the -- many of those in the industry, including honey producers in this country, and honey importers, and the federal investigators from ICE that are working with them, believe that at least half of the major producers in this country are knowingly using Chinese honey. I mean, if you look at the shipments that are coming in, they're just enormous, and these people aren't fools. These are major companies. If they can save two or three or 10 cents a pound, they wind up increasing profits significantly.
SCHNEIDERSo it's not my estimate, it's the estimate of the sources that work closely investigating this. The customs officials, the tariff officials have worked really diligently. Last year they wound up arresting I think almost two dozen people from nine different companies, most of them foreign-based, Chinese, and in the case of the largest one, German, that was based in Chicago, and indicted them for knowingly importing Chinese honey and laundering it. So, I mean, they're doing what they can. This is the -- this is the economic part of it though, not the safety part of it. The safety part of it falls to FDA.
NNAMDISo if a jar of honey in the grocery store says, product of the USA, is it possible that that honey is in fact from somewhere else?
SCHNEIDERYeah, it is. And we're doing -- we're just finishing up another story now where we've purchased samples off grocery shelves in ten states and the District of Columbia, and have had them analyzed by the major lab -- the only lab in the U.S. that can actually analyze for pollen and determine the country of origin. And I'm not gonna destroy my story now by giving you all the details, but let's just say that the issue -- we're also having it tested by another lab that looks for adulterants like the contamination of antibiotics and the heavy metal.
SCHNEIDERAll I'm willing to tell you, Kojo, is that the idea of truth in labeling doesn't seem to permeate the honey industry. I mean, clearly there's, you know, there's benign, but nevertheless fraudulent labeling of honey as being blackberry when it's not, or being mesquite when it's not.
NNAMDIWell, if the origins of these imports are being obscured with relabeling and other honey laundering techniques, can a ban keep illegal honey out?
SCHNEIDERWell, I mean, we -- no, I don't believe it can. Yeah. Well, I'm sorry, let me rephrase that. Of course it can. If the FDA wished to ban all imported honey, which is probably not a great idea, and they wish to put the resources in to enforce that ban, sure they could do that, but that's not going to happen. As you said, when you opened the show, you know, more than half of the honey used, you know, used in this country is imported. We can't produce enough. Our beekeepers are working to capacity.
SCHNEIDERSo if you look at that, and you look at, you know, the intrinsic disease known as colony collapse, we've lost lots and lots of colonies throughout this country. So we need to import half. And Kojo, it's not just what we see on the shelves. Of everything we import, at least two-thirds of it goes in the industry, cereals, breads, pastries, sauces. It's not just the little plastic honey bears we find. Industry uses an enormous amount in producing the, you know, thousands of products we buy on the shelves. So the pressure to keep honey coming in is really enormous.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephone. Here is Raya in Washington D.C. Raya, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAYAHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for taking my call, and thank you for the caller -- to the caller for his work. I definitely support the testing of imported honey, and I guess my question is, what as a consumer can we do to perhaps influence these manufacturers to test the honey that they're putting into their products or to verify that they are not getting honey that's been laundered? And I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Raya. Andrew, does the FDA itself inspect honey coming in?
SCHNEIDERI'm sorry, Kojo, would you repeat it, please, sir?
NNAMDIDoes the FDA inspect honey coming in? And our caller wanted to know what consumers can do to make sure that these companies that are importing this honey, stop.
SCHNEIDERWell, all right. Let's address what the FDA does as far as this goes. The FDA has statutes that clearly say you can't have adulterated honey. They have what they call import alerts that they put out when they believe a company is exporting adulterated honey, or other products, but in this case honey. The questions is how well do they work? I mean, two of the Indian companies that we're most concerned about have got pending import alerts against them.
SCHNEIDERThat means that -- these are issued by the FDA. That means when the honey comes in, it's kept at the docks. It's kept in a bonded warehouse until it's analyzed by a lab approved by the FDA, and when the FDA finds that it's been -- that it's clean and safe, they then release it. It sounds great on paper. I talked to a very sharp gentleman, a U.S. public health service captain who is the division director in the FDA's office that does this import alert, and he went through this very elaborate process.
SCHNEIDERWhen I asked him specifically how do we prove this, I mean, for example one of the Indian companies sent us almost 200 shipments that have come into U.S. so far this year. If you believe the process, that means every one of those shipments has been stopped, samples have been taken, shipped to a lab, analyzed and then released into commerce. And I asked him, how does he know this, can you get me proof of this, and, you know, he said that was a good question and he was gonna get right back to me. It's been a couple of weeks.
NNAMDIWell, it's a question that will have to remain unanswered for the time being because we're out of time. Andrew Schneider, thank you so much for joining us.
SCHNEIDERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAndrew Schneider is the senior public health correspondent for Food Safety News. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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