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March 9, 2013 12:26 AM   Subscribe

Nation's Biggest Honey Packer Admits 'Laundering' Chinese Honey
Two big honey packers, including one of the largest in the country — Groeb Farms of Onsted, Mich. — admitted buying millions of dollars worth of honey that was falsely labeled.

Your Honey Isn’t Honey from the Food Renegade.

Previously on MeFi. Previouslier.
posted by The Illiterate Pundit (51 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
The job title "Honey Packer" just sounds unwholesome to me, somehow.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:35 AM on March 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


Altogether, the seven defendants allegedly avoided antidumping duties totaling more than $180 million.

[...] two of the nation’s largest honey suppliers have both entered into deferred prosecution agreements with the government, subject to court approval, with Honey Holding agreeing to pay a $1 million fine and Groeb Farms agreeing to the payment of a $2 million fine.
Boy, they're getting some great return on their investment for this one!
posted by neckro23 at 12:42 AM on March 9, 2013 [41 favorites]


Aw poop. I was relying on the extra Chloramphenicol to help with my seasonal allergies.

Back to getting honey from the bee guy at the farmers market.

pst: One way apiarists know what plants the bees are hitting is by looking at the
bee bread they bring back. Ask to see the stuff if they have any next time you're chatting with your bee guy - it's super cool.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:46 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


Boy, they're getting some great return on their investment for this one!

They'll be paying the duties as well, but Warren's question regarding what it takes for execs to go to jail also seems appropriate here.

If this weren't corporate level there would be talk of RICO.
posted by jaduncan at 12:48 AM on March 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


The job title "Honey Packer" just sounds unwholesome to me, somehow.

I'm similarly amused by the frequent use of "honey hole" that I hear on TV all the time these days.
posted by XMLicious at 1:02 AM on March 9, 2013


Both companies face criminal charges, but they've struck a deal to avoid immediate prosecution. The companies are promising to play by the rules and to set up programs to ensure that all the honey they buy in the future comes from legitimate sources.

Oh nice, they struck a deal: They won't do it again!

Shame they won't cut that kind of deal in other criminal matters.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:06 AM on March 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


(You know, this is a complete tangent, but I'm now curious if "black" companies--that is, companies owned and staffed mostly by non-whites--get the same sort of extra attention from regulatory agencies that non-white people get from the police.)

On topic, I made a comment the other day about how authoritarians need men with guns to tell them what to do, words or "morals" aren't enough. The flip side of that, though, is that the same people celebrate finding ways around said laws, either through loopholes, rules-lawyering or cheating. It's the getting caught part that's wrong, not the breaking of the law.

With the pitiful fines and no-consequence outcomes of most white-collar corporate crime, every story like this is just another chuckle and slap on the back to these folk.
posted by maxwelton at 1:40 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just another reason not to trust Big Honey.
posted by Area Man at 2:18 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


With the pitiful fines and no-consequence outcomes of most white-collar corporate crime, every story like this is just another chuckle and slap on the back to these folk.

I does make you long for a judge with a fairy-tale sense of sentencing, doesn't it? "You will pay a fine of $3 million dollars.... and the directors and board will be locked in a room with the tainted honey and forced to eat their way out. And the room will be full of bees fully apprised of the situation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:38 AM on March 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


I thought you were going to say scaphism.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:57 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


More like mellification.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:40 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I initially misread that title as 'honey badger', and thought, honey badger doesn't give a SHIT where he gets his honey.
posted by fuzzypantalones at 5:26 AM on March 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Well in another post I said "Next Goats" which is true we are waiting for our Saanen does to be born and will bring them home in the fall. SO I guess next...beehives. We ordered three nucs this week and are planning where to put them and thanks to an ask me last year I have tons of advice and books about what I am doing. Pretty funny for a city person that suddenly I find my food getting closer and closer to my front door.

PLUS who counterfeits honey? and that should scare us the most because if honey is that unavailable what does that mean really? Is it the cost (as implied in the article), labour costs? or something worse? I ask because I have a bad feeling it is only slightly because of the first two.
posted by mrgroweler at 5:46 AM on March 9, 2013


How come the Chinese bees aren't dying? I wonder if they did something to our bees so that they could see us their honey.
posted by Renoroc at 6:05 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


pst: One way apiarists know what plants the bees are hitting is by looking at the
bee bread they bring back. Ask to see the stuff if they have any next time you're chatting with your bee guy - it's super cool.


This is quite a bit of fun, actually. My bees were bringing back pollen during a few warm days in the dead of winter and I was damned if I could figure out where they were getting it from - everything I could see was as bare and brown as could be. Turns out there was just enough sunshine and warmth to spur a dandelion bloom in some yards a half-mile away.

In late January during some warm spells, a few of the early maple trees started showing blossoms and the bees were all over those as well. You can also consult lists of pollen and nectar plants by month for various areas and compare the color of the stuff with what they're bringing back. Other folks use observation hives to figure out where the foragers are sending others.
posted by jquinby at 6:06 AM on March 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


PLUS who counterfeits honey?
Businessmen.

Would you rather buy 50 tons of Honey (to resell) for $5 million dollars or $1 million dollars?

Do you really care where the honey comes from? Honey is pure, right? Oh wait, do you mind the if the honey has impurities like pesticides or industrial antibiotics (from China)?

When I first read an article about this I was skeptical, one day in a supermarket I read the 'made in' on the labels expecting to see usa and canada. Except for the expensive boutique it was "made in Argentina and Mexico", or "USA and Bolivia"?? What? Every package was an unusual "blend". Now did all that honey really get harvested from Bolivian bees or is that a pass thru from evil Chineese bees?

I'm not personally super concerned as I'm not a heavy user, but it was spooky.
posted by sammyo at 6:11 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


...the honey has impurities like pesticides or industrial antibiotics (from China)?

Most of the large beekkeepers are trucking around the U.S. pollinating monoculture ag for a fee. I think American honey is likely to have pesticides and industrial garbage. Our only saving grace is our regulatory environment, and even that is underfunded and weak.
posted by letitrain at 6:25 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most of the large beekkeepers are trucking around the U.S. pollinating monoculture ag for a fee.

Indeed - 65-70% of commercial colonies are used for pollinating California almonds. Whether this practice is a problem for the bee stocks or not is an issue that spills barrels of ink. It can't be great for the colonies to be concentrated in one area like that. And beyond the possibility of this concentration being a vector for problems, the dependence of the almond growers on the pollination services creates a tension of its own. Some work is being done to lessen the use of honeybees and increase the use of orchard mason bees, which can live in the groves year-round.
posted by jquinby at 6:37 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you buy what looks like honey at the dollar store (plastic bear packaging, beehive on label) check carefully to make sure it is not artificial-honey-flavored high-fructose-corn-syrup. Maybe a bee flew over the truck on the way from the factory, but that's the extent of the involvement.
posted by ackptui at 6:55 AM on March 9, 2013


One of the huge benefits of sourcing as much food locally as you can reasonably is, well you are a lot less likely to end up in situations like this. Yeah, there are plenty of things I'm just not going to get locally raised, but honey is one (haven't bout a honey bear in decades). Big companies and distribution networks are not necessarily better or worse, but they remove a large degree of personal accountability from the network. Ideally that accountability is then suppose to be taken up with good regulation, but when that comes under reasonable suspect... well, yeah, I think I'll go help fund the local kickstarter for an in-town bee keeper to expand his business. Or support the CSA, or ...
posted by edgeways at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2013


Aw poop. I was relying on the extra Chloramphenicol to help with my seasonal allergies.

Back to getting honey from the bee guy at the farmers market.
Why, do you think Chinese Honey will kill you or something? What's the difference? (and speaking of which, what makes you think the farmers market guy isn't selling Chinese Honey?)

__

BTW, the chemical composition of honey is very similar to High Fructose Corn Syrup.
(Honey is 38% Fructose, 31% Glucose and 17% water. Without the water it would be 45% Fructose and 37% glucose. HFCS is 55% fructose and 42% glucose, so about the same ratio. Of fructose to glucose. Honey does have about 7% maltose, and maybe 2.8% other sugars, including sucrose)
posted by delmoi at 7:25 AM on March 9, 2013


@delmoi: I'd say that sebastienbailard is trying to build up resistance to what ever pollen is causing the allergies locally. Local bees, local flowers.
posted by SpannerX at 7:32 AM on March 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


This article comes as we're out of honey. Good reminder to be selective when shopping and check the provenance. Better regulation is needed as these corporations seem to need it to remind them where their moral compass is.
posted by arcticseal at 7:51 AM on March 9, 2013


Chinese honey HAS been found to contain certain contaminants that are not commonly found in U.S. or European honey. In 2002, (to quote myself in an article I wrote a couple of years ago on this subject) "European and Canadian officials discovered and seized more than 80 shipments of Chinese honey that were contaminated with the antibiotic chloramphenicol." Chloramphenicol is banned for agricultural use in the U.S., because it can have seriously toxic side effects in people. The FDA has also seized multiple shipments of honey from China, India and a few other repeat offender countries that contain chloramphenicol.

Chinese honey also often turns out to be . . . not honey, but a blend of other things including sugar syrups. This is not to say that food producers in other countries including the U.S. do not also try to pass off fake or adulterated food as the genuine article (see the very repackagers mentioned in this post) but in China, due to widespread corruption of the officials who are supposed to police food safety, food fakery really is a rampant problem.
posted by BlueJae at 7:59 AM on March 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Also, delmoi, the way I ensure my local farmer's market honey supplier is not selling me Chinese honey is by visiting his backyard hives. Just like the way I ensure my eggs really are organic and free range is by buying them from my sister, and the way I ensure my fresh tomatoes are not grown by slave laborers is by growing them myself.

Which totally sucks, actually, because I am well, well aware that not everyone can do those sorts of things to ensure their personal food supply is ethical and safe; I personally can only check up on / grow a very small percentage of the food I eat.
posted by BlueJae at 8:10 AM on March 9, 2013


(and speaking of which, what makes you think the farmers market guy isn't selling Chinese Honey?)

Because my farmer's market honey gal is well-known in the local area, returns year after year, provides the hives that pollinate my CSA farm's fruit and vegetable crops, and offers free tours of her apiary and operations?
posted by BrashTech at 8:11 AM on March 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


the way I ensure my fresh tomatoes are not grown by slave laborers is by growing them myself.

Hmm...and how much do you pay yourself an hour? Do you give yourself the correct breaks and comply to OSHA standards? *looks suspicious*
posted by jaduncan at 8:17 AM on March 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Here's a radical idea: end the import tax on Chinese honey. This discourages false labeling. Foodies still get to pay a premium for local honey. Folks who don't care where their honey comes from get to pay less.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:42 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


...and because Chinese honey is so cheap, all the American producers go out of business. That's why there is a tariff, along with the issues of contamination.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:26 AM on March 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


My wife can't have sage honey, because she's allergic to sage. She'd had it in the past, only to break out in hives all over her body... so on first glance, this was quite troubling.

But upon further reading, it's comforting to think that the big store brand thing of honey we have up on the shelves is probably carcinogenic hormone-laced corn syrup instead.

Can I haz class action lawsuit?!
posted by markkraft at 9:30 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


On reflection (and reading the thread up to this point, thank you BlueJae about chloramphenicol, I didn't know about that), I was wrong. Makes me glad I can get this here. I'm not sure what the honey bee population is like in Nova Scotia, but I'm thinking since we aren't as mono-culture around here, they might actually doing well. I hope so, I love honey and mead!
posted by SpannerX at 9:39 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


...and because Chinese honey is so cheap, all the American producers go out of business. That's why there is a tariff, along with the issues of contamination.

Unlikely, since ag industry needs bees.

Contamination issues are irrelevant here, a separate problem having nothing to do with the anti-dumping duties, or even China specifically.

The reason for the laundering is import duties, based on some bullshitty notions of dumping product on the US market. Which turns out to be happening anyway. Which means China probably wasn't exactly dumping to kill domestic producers, but because they have more honey than they know what to do with. Supply and demand, and all.

The result? High incentive to circumvent the duties by dishonesty. Now, even well meaning honey consumers might be buying Chinese honey unwittingly because the money is there somewhere along the chain. Getting rid of the import duty removes one very profitable incentive to be dishonest.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:06 AM on March 9, 2013


...and because Chinese honey is so cheap, all the American producers go out of business. That's why there is a tariff, along with the issues of contamination.

And last I checked we subsidized the US honey industry.

Food fraud has been going on forever, but we need to start getting serious about it. It's in no one's best interest. Because of the Iowa egg scandals I've stopped buying eggs in the store. As mentioned about it'll not be difficult to buy my honey locally too. I realize not everyone is in this position, which is why I invite you to move to Iowa.

Seriously though, I like to do my own farm inspections. Talk to a farmer sometime. Those guys can get opinionated on what the best way to do things are. I one had one dairy farmer bad mouthing another over some method of production I didn't understand at all, but she was adamant it wasn't the way to go about it.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:10 AM on March 9, 2013


The reason for the laundering is import duties, based on some bullshitty notions of dumping product on the US market. Which turns out to be happening anyway. Which means China probably wasn't exactly dumping to kill domestic producers, but because they have more honey than they know what to do with. Supply and demand, and all.

Not everything needs to be solved by the free hand of the market. Instead of overproducing contaminated product that they are compelled by market pressures to dump in foreign markets, such as the United States, perhaps the Chinese could have a regulatory body (one with real teeth, not like the FDA, for example) test and ensure reasonable standards of quality of their product. Legal consequences for the use of dangerous chemical adulterants would make overproduction less financially compelling. Those consequences would also lead to better quality product, which could be sold on global markets at a fair price, reducing the need for the US to set import tariffs.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:37 AM on March 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


The job title "Honey Packer" just sounds unwholesome to me, somehow.

Perhaps, but the term "honey laundering," sounds like something out of Law & Order: Agricultural Divison and thus warms my soul.
posted by jonmc at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Not everything needs to be solved by the free hand of the market. Instead of overproducing contaminated product that they are compelled by market pressures to dump in foreign markets, such as the United States, perhaps the Chinese could have a regulatory body (one with real teeth, not like the FDA, for example) test and ensure reasonable standards of quality of their product. Legal consequences for the use of dangerous chemical adulterants would make overproduction less financially compelling. Those consequences would also lead to better quality product, which could be sold on global markets at a fair price, reducing the need for the US to set import tariffs.

You're conflating two different issues here. Subsidizing US honey producers, and adulterated/contaminated product.

The import duty is imposed for the former reason, not the latter. Which is pulled out as an after the fact, if unrelated, way to shore up the case against Chinese honey.

The reason for the dishonest practice is the import duty. The justification for the import duty was dubious in the first place. Thus, maybe it's time to abandon it.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:12 AM on March 9, 2013


For years now we've been buying honey from our local farmers market. I know the name of my beekeeper.

Also, I don't buy imported extra virgin olive oil. And to me, domestic olive oil is made in California. Anything crossing the State line is imported to me.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:18 AM on March 9, 2013


First they came for the honey packers, and I said nothing because am not an apiarist. Next, they came for the Alferd Packers, and I said nothing because I'm not a cannibal. Finally, they came for the fudge packers, and it was all good because I'm allergic to cocoa.
posted by zippy at 12:24 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought you were going to say scaphism.
posted by dunkadunc


I saw some old purported CIA interrogation manual, that detailed torture after torture.

One single-page tactic involved smearing a person with honey and letting the insects go at them. It was the only torture in the whole book that had a disclaimer at the bottom of the page, to the effect that even moderate exposure would likely cause irreversible psychological damage.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:51 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


From a previous Metafilter thread on the subject, quoted from a Globe and Mail article:
Most honey comes from China, where beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste.

That seems to indicate strongly that excluding Chinese honey is a very good idea, because their quality control standards are not nearly up to those of domestic honey.
posted by JHarris at 12:59 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Regulation is so weak that only yuppie foodies get to eat anything that isn't tainted.

Fuck you, America.
posted by edheil at 1:47 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


BTW, the chemical composition of honey is very similar to High Fructose Corn Syrup.

I agree with this completely because I know it is true BUT, HFC seems to make you crave MORE and more HFC. If I happen to put to much honey in my tea I almost don't want to drink it. And if I use it to make beer or bread I use much much less than I would sugar (unless I really want a honey oaty taste) and I never crave real honey beyond "Yum honey would make this better.
posted by mrgroweler at 2:55 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


sammyo: ...one day in a supermarket I read the 'made in' on the labels expecting to see usa and canada. Except for the expensive boutique it was "made in Argentina and Mexico", or "USA and Bolivia"?? What? Every package was an unusual "blend".
I don't mean to pick on you, here, but you have reminded me of a simple point I want to make.

Honey fraud has been making the front page of MetaFilter now and then for a couple of years now, and every time it comes up, somebody in the thread either gives advice along the lines of "read the label," or mentions how they always make a point of reading the label, or recounts a time when they read the label, etc.

But the story here is that the labels on honey are bullshit. Reading them is a waste of time at best and a source of a false sense of security at worst. According to the figures given in the Food Safety News test, the only information to be gleaned from the label is that the stuff almost certainly was not made in wherever the label says.
posted by Western Infidels at 3:42 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


They'll be paying the duties as well, but Warren's question regarding what it takes for execs to go to jail also seems appropriate here.

If that $180M was invested, even an extremely modest rate of return over the time period during which the crimes took place would more than cover the supposedly "punitive" fines levied.

Deterrent, my ass.
posted by mhoye at 4:28 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


"One... tactic involved smearing a person with honey and letting the insects go at them . . . to the effect that even moderate exposure would likely cause irreversible psychological damage."

I would've *so* rather seen this penalty for the seven defendants, in lieu of a few million dollars in fines.
posted by markkraft at 5:26 PM on March 9, 2013


China probably wasn't exactly dumping to kill domestic producers, but because they have more honey than they know what to do with.

If this were the case, why would they be mixing it so heavily with corn syrup? I understand it helps it have a better taste but, if you have a ton of worthless crap, why would you want to increase the volume so you could get even less per ounce?
posted by Foam Pants at 5:43 PM on March 9, 2013


Also, delmoi, the way I ensure my local farmer's market honey supplier is not selling me Chinese honey is by visiting his backyard hives.
They could still be "cutting" their honey with foreign stuff, in order to sell more then they would normally produce.
posted by delmoi at 4:14 AM on March 10, 2013


If that $180M was invested, even an extremely modest rate of return over the time period during which the crimes took place would more than cover the supposedly "punitive" fines levied.

Deterrent, my ass.

Typically interest is applied.

That's not even the damning calculation here though. $180m of duties potentially avoided for a $2m fine means that it pays to attempt to avoid duties if you get caught less than 98.89% of the time. The shareholders aren't going to punish management for it. The DoJ apparently aren't going to punish management for it.

Even the detected crime makes absolutely clear that absent moral judgement the best game theory outcomes are produced by intentional evasion of duties.
posted by jaduncan at 4:35 AM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would guess there is a chance the fined company will have lower sales (and less goodwill with their buyers) as a result of the fines.
posted by zippy at 6:00 PM on March 10, 2013


Yes, delmoi, and for all I know my mother might be passing off storebought pies as her own homemade recipe. But there's only so much investigation one person can do.
posted by BlueJae at 6:39 PM on March 10, 2013


You're conflating two different issues here. Subsidizing US honey producers, and adulterated/contaminated product.

I think you're moving the goalposts, just a little. You were the one who noted that overproduction of Chinese honey is why they have to dump it on other markets. "[T]hey have more honey than they know what to do with. Supply and demand, and all."

The regulatory vacuum in China and the United States — a direct consequence of a decades-long, mutually beneficial political process in both countries that has pursued free market idealism as an end in itself — is why China is able to dump cheap, toxic products in US markets.

And in the larger picture of things, we're not just talking honey, here. It's putting lead in gasoline, it's putting CFCs into the ozone layer, it's pulling crude oil out of the Gulf, it's putting toxic chemicals in honey to maximize production efficiencies: Historically, free markets are efficient at moving dangerous products due to the phenomena of moral hazard — where businesses never pay the true costs for the consumption of their goods — and implacable demand — where consumers demand the cheapest goods without being forced to deal with the full consequences of consumption.

Free markets are good at making certain things efficient, but only when the actions of participants have no negative consequences to them.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:46 PM on March 10, 2013


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