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Mo’ honey, mo’ problems
February 18, 2013 5:31 AM   Subscribe

The world of honey trading is a murky one, riddled with smuggling and fakery. But honey detectives are on the case! And they have a new, powerful weapon: a laser tool designed by the European Space Agency to measure carbon on Mars that has been re-purposed to detect fake honey. (Via)

According to a 2011 Food Safety News investigation more than a third of honey consumed in the US has been smuggled from China (Previously) and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals (more). To make matters worse, some honey brokers create counterfeit honey.
posted by Mezentian (59 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Food fraud seems to be an increasing problem as we have seen with horsemeat and oilve oil racketeers, but at least science is there to lend a hand. I had no idea this sort of thing was getting out of control.
posted by Mezentian at 5:32 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't forget the fake eggs.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:41 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Honey and olive oil - gotta be careful with that stuff. Only buy California olive oil, as the stuff from Italy, Spain or Turkey will almost always be cut with a large proportion of safflower seed or sunflower seed oil with some nasty adulterants to make it taste olive-oily. Only buy honey from local apiaries with a good reputation, otherwise it will be cut with HFCS and other adulterants, some of them fairly unsafe.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:44 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Only buy California olive oil

How do you know that "Californian" olive oil is really from California?
posted by gen at 5:48 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even if it passed through California at one point, maybe to pick up some bogus documentation, California is just the first hop from China to the rest of North America.
posted by pracowity at 5:53 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy: "cut with HFCS"

That's funny, since HFCS is basically a combination of the two main constituents of honey. It might taste slightly different, but making honey out to be "natural" and "healthy" while HFCS is "synthetic" and "unhealthy" is propaganda.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:54 AM on February 18, 2013


Only buy California olive oil...Only buy honey from local apiaries...

Thing is, real California olive oil is stupidly expensive where I live. Prohibitively so, for anything other than ultra-special-occasion uses.

As for local apiaries, you really have to accidentally stumble-across one. I did get lucky when I discovered that a good friend of my father-in-law keeps his own bees and harvests the honey for use by himself and friends. He doesn't sell it, though, as I suspect doing so would require a good bit of licensing and inspection. Best to keep it a hobby, I suppose.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on February 18, 2013


Huh. I was pretty skeptical of the fake egg story when I first heard it but FfA's link makes it seem much more feasible.
posted by XMLicious at 5:55 AM on February 18, 2013


Letter from Italy - Slippery Business - The trade in adulterated olive oil. (Tom Muller, 2007)

Olive Oil’s Dark Side
(2012 interview with Muller.)
posted by gen at 6:01 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do you know that "Californian" olive oil is really from California?

One way: http://www.cooc.com/producers_certified.html
posted by aramaic at 6:08 AM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Finance police seize 400 tonnes of fraudulent olive oil: Bottles touted as 'Made in Italy' but really from abroad
posted by gen at 6:09 AM on February 18, 2013


If you really fancy yourself an olive oil snob you'd be buying small batches of Palestinian oil.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:10 AM on February 18, 2013


At the last local apiary we bought honey from, we walked in to find four people getting totally drunk on cheap vodka of a Sunday morning. We had to wait for one of them to reluctantly put down his glass and cigarette, rise from his chair, and ladle some honey into a recycled pickle jar for us. The jar lid was slightly rusty and there was unidentifiable stuff floating in the honey. But it tasted fine.

I'm not saying you shouldn't buy local -- you should! -- but remember that "small and local" doesn't mean "run by magic elves from the Isle of Innocence". Anything could have been in that honey. Investigate if you can.
posted by pracowity at 6:20 AM on February 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


It would delight me to test the olive oil I buy in Switzerland. It's branded by one of the 2 main grocery retailers. If they are cheating, I'd like to catch them at it. I don't worry too much about it, as I don't use that much anyway.

The honey thing though made me go out and find locally produced honey. How am I to trust 'ordinary' economical honey? I had gone years without any, but got in to honey in tea while fighting the last wave of colds (rosehips tea w/honey is heavenly).
posted by Goofyy at 6:21 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do you know that "Californian" olive oil is really from California?

You don't, but it's much more difficult to get around law domestically, and it's easier for wholesalers to check the authenticity of what they're buying, and sue their suppliers for fraud if something funny turns up. The olive oil import racket is a constantly shifting shell game of fly-by-night scam outfits driven by organized crime abroad, where it's impossible to vet what you're buying, and impossible to go after those who sold it to you if it's fake.

HFCS is "synthetic" and "unhealthy" is propaganda

No, sorry, that's baloney. Here's some info from the American Dietetic Association (part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) in convenient "For Dummies" form.

Consumer Reports can't really speak to the health effects, but they have a warning about the claims that HFCS is "all natural."
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:26 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Only buy California olive oil
No thank you I buy the real stuff.
posted by adamvasco at 6:26 AM on February 18, 2013


may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals

Heavy metals? Even in China the regions where they mine heavy metals are pretty limited and on this basis I'd be more concerned with Australian honey and the heavy radioactive metals Australian bees must be picking up.
posted by three blind mice at 6:39 AM on February 18, 2013


See, everyone thinks I'm a stupid hippie for joining the food coop, but crap like this is exactly why I did it: because I'm too lazy to stand in the aisle of the grocery store for ten minutes per product and think to myself "is this going to kill me/killing someone abroad/killing the planet/etc.?" There's a committee at the coop that does it all for me!
posted by Mooseli at 6:40 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a committee that kills everyone for you? That's convenient!
posted by pracowity at 6:43 AM on February 18, 2013 [14 favorites]


Since we're discussing California olive oil, any opinions on Trader Joe's California Estate Olive Oil? I don't know how much it costs in stores but I bet it's pretty reasonably priced. EDIT: Looks like it's $6/bottle and Consumer Reports said it tastes pretty good.

Also, regarding Trader Joe's honey: Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.
posted by exhilaration at 6:50 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even in China the regions where they mine heavy metals are pretty limited

It's not the mining, it's the refining and industrial use - compounds containing the heavy metals find their way into the environment, where they're picked up by the bees from polluted water supplies or dust on flowers growing in contaminated soil.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:00 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Honey Laundering" always gets a fair bit of ink in the 2 main US beekeeping magazines. One recent tipoff was a sudden flood of honey marked with a country of origin where there are only a handful of keepers, and nothing like the beekeeping needed to suddenly produce such a quantity. It might have been Myanmar, but I can't swear to it.

Anyway, buy your honey from a local, reputable beekeeper. If you don't know a beekeeper, check your local farmer's markets or better yet, contact the closest beekeeping association and ask them who's got honey for sale. Sometimes the association itself has honey. In our group, new members who receive hive and equipment grants owe the association half of their harvest for 2 years. This honey payback is sold to fund new grants, and so on.

And, of course, if you have a little bit of space, you can give beekeeping a whirl yourself. :)
posted by jquinby at 7:01 AM on February 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


And, of course, if you have a little bit of space, you can give beekeeping a whirl yourself. :)

Don't the neighbors freak out when they see bees or bee hives about? I have run into plenty of people who just lose their shit at the sight of anything that looks even vaguely like a bee. Reactions along the lines of "Bee! Bee! Must run! Must scare it away! Must kill it! My babies!" followed by a Wilhelm scream.
posted by pracowity at 7:14 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, sorry, that's baloney. Here's some info from the American Dietetic Association (part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) in convenient "For Dummies" form.

Consumer Reports can't really speak to the health effects, but they have a warning about the claims that HFCS is "all natural."


I don't see how your links rebut what Joakim Ziegler said. In fact, the Consumer Reports link says, re:natural, "It’s distinctions like these that lead Consumers Union to consider the “natural” label not meaningful."
posted by gumpstump at 7:15 AM on February 18, 2013


any opinions on Trader Joe's California Estate Olive Oil?

Muller is the author of Extra Virginity.

Tom's Supermarket Picks: quality oils at good prices

posted by gen at 7:16 AM on February 18, 2013


We get our unpasteurised clover honey from the Kuepfer's, a Mennonite family vending at the Kitchener farmer's market for the past 20 years. You can see the blue table on the far left of the image on this page. It is I think $12 for a litre, and the jar lasts us a season or so. In the summer, it often crystallizes in the jar before we can finish it, and at some point someone gets to pour hot tea into the nearly empty jar and swish it around and go mmmmmm.

We try our best to buy food grown by people we can look at every week. I think it is a good idea.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:21 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


There was also the fake Ketchup story a few months ago.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:25 AM on February 18, 2013


I've kept bees in my suburban backyard for about a year now. The folks who moved in behind us saw the hive and told me they thought it was neat. The folks on the other side of us probably don't know I have them - we have a hedge of 30' leland cypresses that effectively screen the yard pretty completely on that side. Bees come out of the hive, go straight up over the hedges and off to wherever they go.

As it happens, we're moving out of the suburb to a bit of acreage just out of town, in part because we have an HOA and the state AG just opined that there is no shelter for beekeeping from HOAs. Don't want to derail any further, but: a well timed gift of free honey goes a long way towards soothing the neighbors.
posted by jquinby at 7:33 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The solution is for all of us to maintain a small olive orchard pollinated by our own bees, if indeed bees sup upon the pollen of olive trees. Though I suppose that might make your honey taste a bit olive-y. A small price to pay for authenticity.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:35 AM on February 18, 2013


I'm no expert on honey, but if you asked me if space lasers might help solve the problem, or any problem at all, really, I would say yes.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:37 AM on February 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


As a deterent / useful detection method, I give this about three months before it's obsolete as a detection method. In hindsight, it's pretty obvious that the people substituting oversulfated chondroitin sulfate for heparin really put some thought into finding a compound that would look like heparin to all the raw materials testing methods currently in place. So, unless all the fraud is being committed by small time operations, then all someone seeking to commit fraud needs to do is have access to the instrument, knowledge of the isotope profile they're trying to fake, some C14 labeled sugar and a pipette.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:03 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Investigate if you can.

Like...how? This is what the FDA is supposed to be for. Ugh, everything is so fucked.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:16 AM on February 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


It would seem to me that the goal is not to make it entirely impossible to fake honey, but rather to increase the cost of such fakery and to thereby remove the profit margin.
posted by aramaic at 8:17 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


In related news, NASA announces that Mars appears to be covered in fake honey.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:33 AM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


If... we installed lasers in the bees, they could test the honey themselves!

This will not go wrong, I promise!
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:38 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Investigate if you can.

Like...how?


Well, we just walked in off country lane because there was a sign that said Honey and we could see hives out back. It was a one-time deal for us. If I were going to go to the same place over and over, I'd probably take a pass on the place with the vodka-and-cigarettes place and find somewhere that at least looked a little more wholesome. And I'm sure there's a local, state, or national agricultural department you can call to see if they've been inspected and are meeting standards.
posted by pracowity at 8:42 AM on February 18, 2013


Farmer's Markets are a great source for honey. You see the same beekeepers there week after week, you get to know the farmers whose fields and orchards they pollinate, and you get to try all the different varieties. (Spoiler alert: Buckwheat is where it's at.)
posted by BrashTech at 8:59 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Farmer's Markets are a great source for honey.

If the markets are inconvenient, see if your state has an equivalent to this site, which lists producers of pretty much anything who are willing to sell directly. We've used it for produce and meat. We talked to one beef producer and asked if we could come out to see his farm. He was all "hot dog, of course you can! I stopped offering to folks because no one ever took us up on it!" We drove out and he showed us the whole operation - the old milking barn, his fields, equipment, etc. The kids loved it.
posted by jquinby at 9:04 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


HFCS is NOT an ingredient in natural, raw honey. Honey is natural and healthy. HFCS. . . I don't really know but it has nothing, nothing to do with honey.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 9:07 AM on February 18, 2013


HFCS is NOT an ingredient in natural, raw honey. Honey is natural and healthy. HFCS. . . I don't really know but it has nothing, nothing to do with honey.

Not what he said. he said "HFCS is basically a combination of the two main constituents of honey". Which is true. HFCS is fructose and glucose. Honey has a very similar ratio of glucose to fructose that HFCS does.

But then again, honey isn't injected into every damn thing you eat either.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


But saying HFCS and honey have the same primary constituents and are therefore the same thing is the same as saying the baby is the bathwater.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Farmer's Markets are a great source for honey.

I've always suspected the honey booth at my local farmer's market of honeylaundering. There's something about the selection of strangely industrial-quality beeswax products and the overly grinny condo-timeshare-salesman attitude of the people working the booth that seems more entrepreneurial than apiarical.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:03 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Forgive me for putting words in his mouth yet again, but he didn't say that either.

He said that they're not as different as people would like to imply they are - that painting one as "natural and healthy" and the other as "artificial and unhealthy" is basically ignoring the fact that they're 99% the same thing.

It's kind of a form of essentialism to say that glucose+fructose+water is 100% ok if it was produced "naturally" but 100% bad if it was produced "artificially"
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:04 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can we not have the HFCS argument here?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:05 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


But saying HFCS and honey have the same primary constituents and are therefore the same thing is the same as saying the baby is the bathwater.

You're going to make baby Jesus Friedrich Wöhler cry. Most of us can tell a baby from bathwater (hint: bathwater contains more organic sulfates) without resorting to a 21st century technology to do so (and, which I noted earlier, is going to be useful for a matter of months).

If I were developing an assay for this, I'd be looking at the levels of the trace compounds that make honey different from corn syrup. If those are really so low that they can't be measured with modern technology (I used to measure things at the ng/mL range) then arguing that honey is somehow radically different is kind of ingeniousness.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:31 AM on February 18, 2013


You could check for mercury... here in the US, mercury contamination of HFCS is a thing of the past now that mercury-cell technology has been phased out (except the two plants in Ohio and West Virginia), but it's still prevalent outside our borders. Mmm, mmm: Good, wholesome, just-like-Honey-except-when-it's-just-like-cane-sugar HFCS - now with less neurological damage! (Offer not valid outside the U.S.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:50 AM on February 18, 2013


Honey is so different from HCFS in so many ways this conversation is making my head spin. We might as well just say apples and oranges are the same because it's all most fructose anyway.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 12:34 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is honey fakery and also honey wars. I came across material for Manuka honey conterfeiting in China and how sophisticated it is but that link seems to be no longer there.
posted by jadepearl at 12:50 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If I were developing an assay for this, I'd be looking at the levels of the trace compounds that make honey different from corn syrup. If those are really so low that they can't be measured with modern technology (I used to measure things at the ng/mL range) then arguing that honey is somehow radically different is kind of ingeniousness."

The problem isn't so much that it's impossible to find the difference without lasers, it's that the main difference (the pollen that's part of the flavor of honey, something HFCS doesn't have) is currently expensive to screen for. There's also the problem that some honey retailers charge a premium for local or organic honey while providing neither, but that's something that has to be sussed out by doing a DNA test on the pollen, which is very expensive also.
posted by klangklangston at 12:56 PM on February 18, 2013


Honey is so different from HCFS in so many ways this conversation is making my head spin.

HFCS 55 has the same fructose/glucose balance of honey, so its sweetness kinda sorta matches - real honey and some other adulterants are added to make it taste "honey-like" and give it a similar viscosity and color.

Of course, you're not just getting fructose and glucose from HFCS... its manufacture is very complex and prone to contamination from various other compounds along the way (including the aforementioned mercury.) It's really only possible in the marketplace due to corn subsidies... corn is reaaaaaaaal cheap compared to sugarcane and sugarbeets, so the many steps involved in processing it into sweetener are economically viable.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:57 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, I can, using equipment that was widely available in the pleistocene, tell apples from oranges, babies from bathwater, shit from Shinola and my ass from a hole in the ground with a degree of accuracy that would put most analytically testing labs to shame. If you want to assert that the difference between honey and the sugar syrup du jour is so vast that it literally makes you dizzy, I think the onus is on you to explain why no one can measure this difference without resorting to a technology designed to explore other planets.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:00 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If you want to assert that the difference between honey and the sugar syrup du jour is so vast that it literally makes you dizzy, I think the onus is on you to explain why no one can measure this difference without resorting to a technology designed to explore other planets."

Thanks for reading my last comment, where I pointed out that it's not conceptually hard to tell the difference, just economically difficult. Maybe stop arguing until you've caught up.
posted by klangklangston at 1:16 PM on February 18, 2013


If you can't tell the difference between honey and HFCS in their raw states using your eyes and mouth, then we are perceiving the world using very different senses and this is probably an unbridgeable gap between the two of us.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 2:20 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


KlangKlangston: The argument keeps getting made that the difference between real honey and sugar syrup is apples and oranges or babies and bathwater. You're arguing that determining which baby was bathed in which water is economically non-viable. This is a disconnect. There is, or at least should be, a couple orders of magnitude difference in difficulty between solving those problems if honey is really head swimmingly different from syrup.

TheTingTangTong: I wonder why the USDA (and all those people buying "honey" at the grocery store) didn't think of that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:33 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've heard that some of the baby food on the market isn't made from real babies.
posted by XMLicious at 4:27 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


What did one honey bee say to the other honey bee?

"Man, this fake shit is harshing my buzz."
posted by nowhere man at 8:09 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"KlangKlangston: The argument keeps getting made that the difference between real honey and sugar syrup is apples and oranges or babies and bathwater. You're arguing that determining which baby was bathed in which water is economically non-viable. This is a disconnect. There is, or at least should be, a couple orders of magnitude difference in difficulty between solving those problems if honey is really head swimmingly different from syrup."

Beef with E. Coli and without is headspinningly different, but there's still not an economically viable way to test all the beef that's sold. And beef, due to the prevalence and the harms that come with E. Coli poisoning, has a fairly large testing infrastructure built up.

It's not discussed in these particular links, though I know it's been discussed before here, but the difference between HFCS and honey comes from the particulate matter suspended, and being able to tell quickly and cheaply at an industrial scale which is actual honey is a non-trivial problem.
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 AM on February 19, 2013


My extra-virgin Greek olive oil says hi.
posted by ersatz at 2:53 AM on February 19, 2013


I think the onus is on you to explain why no one can measure this difference without resorting to a technology designed to explore other planets.

Two things, cost and turnaround time. Most of the wholesalers and retail chains selling funny hunny are also making a lot of money selling bogus product - margins are high, as the cost from the distributor is low. The hassle of selecting samples at random, sending them off to an overworked lab for analysis, waiting a week or two for the results (and paying through the nose for them) while the product takes up warehouse space, which ain't free... not going to fly. Overworked and under-budgeted FDA inspectors also don't have the time and resources for a full lab workup for every batch of honey they inspect.

A hand-held device that gives a result in a matter of minutes, on-site, and can be operated by one tech in the field, completely removes the financial objection to testing, and undermines the excuses retailers give for selling adulterated food.

Full lab work-ups can and should be done at random, but more infrequently and with a larger net, looking for subtle contamination the hand-held unit may have missed and to double-check the accuracy and honesty of the techs in the field.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:49 AM on February 19, 2013


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