Honey companies and importers are launching a program this month to try and stop the flow of illegally sourced honey into the country.
The True Source Honey Initiative is an effort by a handful of producers and importers looking to certify the origin and purity of honey sold to US consumers in jars and products such as cereals, snacks and glazes.
“Where food comes from has become increasingly important to people,” said Jill Clark, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania-based Dutch Gold Honey, one of the partners in the True Source Honey Initiative.
US citizens consume about 159kg of honey per year, but with production of just 65 million kilograms in 2009 (a fall of 12 percent from 2008), according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), domestic production is unable to meet demand.
This has created a booming market for importers — and temptation for a few who want to circumvent taxes on foreign honey.
In September, the US attorney’s office in Chicago announced the indictments of 11 German and Chinese executives and six companies on charges that they avoided nearly US$80 million in honey tariffs and sold honey tainted with banned antibiotics. It was the largest in a string of federal actions over the past two years directed at stopping the illegal honey trade.
Large tariffs were imposed because China was dumping low-cost honey into the US, shutting out domestic producers, said Eric Mussen, a beekeeping expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
“Honey was coming in from China at US$0.77 per kg, and American producers were having to sell their honey at a loss, not even covering their costs,” Mussen said.
US officials then figured out that a honey surplus from China was being routed through South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and other countries that do not face the same duties, he said.
The True Source Honey Initiative wants the countries of origin and ingredients inside the honey jar to match the product, Clark said.
Certification would come after a third-party annual audit that costs honey packers and exporters US$2,000 to US$4,000. The initiative is finalizing a seal that it would offer those who pass the audits to place on their packaging.
US beekeepers would not be -directly subjected to an audit, Clark said.
Currently, labeling for honey requires that packaged honey bearing any combination of USDA marks or statements must also display the name or names of the one or more countries of origin.
Some states have set other standards for honey, mainly defining “pure honey” in a bid to curb the sale of products that have that label but contain corn syrup or other additives.
Florida was the first state to adopt such standards in 2009, and was quickly followed by California, Wisconsin and most recently North Carolina. Similar standards were proposed in at least 12 other states, including North and South Dakota, which account for roughly one-third of US honey.
The USDA is reviewing a petition seeking a national “pure honey” standard.
Although beekeeping in the US has been steadily declining, from 6 million bee colonies after World War II to about 2.5 million today, Mussen said, some young producers are getting in the game.
“I don’t know a lot of young -beekeepers,” Matthew Cary said, last month after delivering jars of his Matthew’s Honey to a nearby farmers market.
The 22-year-old has 200 hives in Lindsay, California, a town of 11,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley. California is third in honey production after the Dakotas.
Cary has been making honey for about a year and a half. He is following in the footsteps of his father, Norman Cary, who has run Cary’s Honey Farms since before his son was born, selling honey wholesale to companies throughout the country.
Norman Cary, 54, also started young, at 13 with two hives he kept as a hobby. By 19, he had 1,000 hives.
Today, Cary’s Honey Farms has 34 employees, 15,000 hives, and produces more than 1 million pounds of honey a year.
Norman Cary remembers the hard days of competing with cheap honey imports.
“It’s difficult when you know you’ve got a quality product and you’re selling it for less than it’s worth,” he said. “I hope companies buy into this program to keep things fair.”
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