By Karen Everstine, NCFPD Research Fellow
Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) occurs in a wide variety of food products, such as fish, spices, oils, and dairy products. However, we know that certain food products can be particularly susceptible to EMA due to market pricing, quality assurance testing methodologies, or even trade policies. One of those food products is honey. In recent years, quality assurance in global honey supplies has been hampered by a number of issues. Colony collapse disorder, an unidentified syndrome in honeybees, has led to drastic reductions in domestic honey production in the U.S. Therefore, honey imports have increased, and by 2011, almost 70% of the honey used in the U.S. was imported.
Since 1994, the U.S. has maintained anti-dumping tariffs on honey from China. This means that the USITC determined that Chinese honey was being sold in the U.S. at less-than-fair value, and it had the potential to cause material injury to the domestic honey market. Chinese honey is therefore more expensive to import than honey from other countries, due to additional tariffs at the border. For this reason, there is a large incentive to ship Chinese honey through intermediate countries, and change the declared country-of-origin labeling to avoid these tariffs. This is called transshipment or honey laundering.
Chinese honey has also been contaminated with unapproved antibiotics, providing an additional incentive for transshipment to conceal the true country of origin. Finally, honey is known to have a long history of adulteration with cheaper sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup or rice syrup.
So, what does this mean for the consumer? The good news is that EMA in honey rarely results in health problems. Adulteration of bulk honey supplies used by food companies to manufacture products such as bread or cereal may affect the company’s bottom line, but consumers are unlikely to notice a difference. The percentage of honey in a final food product is so small that quality changes would not be detectable and health problems are extremely unlikely. For consumers who are determined to spread only 100% pure honey on their toast for breakfast, the best option may be to find a respected brand name or a local supplier.