We are in the middle of a local honey shortage. Our honeybee friends blame this on two things. A cold spring and a decade long honey-laundering scheme that plays more like an episode of Breaking Bad (cue the federal agents, multi-continent smuggling ring, and white-collar prosecutions). Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when conjuring up the obstacles in running a food business, right?
Capital Kombucha spends a great deal of time thinking through the logistics of local food production and consumption. Given our thirst for encouraging people to reduce consumption of cane sugar and corn syrup, we also devote energy to sourcing healthy, local sweeteners like honey. Needless to say, we did not realize how far the honey-rabbit hole would go. What we got in return was an education in how hard it can be for a business to keep its dollars in the community and a colorful story on a developing global trade scandal.
The US consumes almost three times as much honey per year as we are capable of producing. We import the rest. Much of this imported honey comes from China, which produces 26% of the world’s honey. So, when the Commerce Department determined in 2001 that the Chinese were selling their honey at below-market prices (“dumping” if you read the Economist), U.S. businesses had a bit of a problem. The Commerce Department, partly to protect domestic honey producers, imposed steep fees on the Chinese to bring the foreign honey to a fair market price. Then, in a scheme that would make Saul Goodman proud, a number of, let’s call them, enterprising individuals, decided that the US demand for honey was so strong that people would buy something called honey, even if it was actually something else.
Federal investigators found that much of the “honey” making its way into the US was actually a mixture of sugar cane, animal antibiotics, corn syrup, water, and not so friendly contaminants like lead and other heavy metals. Rightly so, the government banned the import of honey containing these additives and hired forensic scientists to determine the ingredients and origin of all honey imports.
A decade later, it’s still hard for us to get our healthy sweetener on.
In a tale as old as bureaucracy itself, the government didn’t have the resources to test every honey barrel in the shipping containers at our ports. Honey hustlers (yes, that’s a thing) quickly realized that the cost of legally importing honey would be more expensive than (1) buying black-market honey from China; (2) shipping it secretly to a third country and re-labeling it to conceal its Chinese origin; (3) importing it to the US; and (4) repackaging it under new labels before sale to U.S. consumers.
Turns out the smuggling scheme worked like gangbusters. Honey experts estimated that in 2011 – ten years after the Commerce Department sanctioned China – one-third of U.S. honey was still illegally imported from China.
In February this year, the government finally cracked down. With an undercover agent posing as a honey buyer, the government executed a sting operation that apprehended 14 executives from German conglomerate Alfred L. Wolff, the sales director of Honey Holding Ltd in Baytown Texas, the President of Premium Food Sales Inc., and independent honey brokers across Texas and California (also a thing).
As the Department of Justice disciplined the international honey launderers, large U.S. honey packers needed a replacement supply fast. Imports from Argentina and Brazil climbed, along with purchases from small apiaries which are now all bone dry. The global honey scandal has oozed its way down, all the way to our local supply chain. Instead of normal Tuesday morning purchasing, we received a lesson that “local” and “organic” are more than marketing buzz words, and are often dictated by global politics that, at the end of the day, can be felt at our dinner tables.
In response, we have been buying organic honey certified by Truesource, a honey consortium that guarantees quality and labeling accuracy. We are committed to using it until the next honey harvest from area producers early next year.
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