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'Funny' honey not so sweet

Illegal, foreign, impure imports impact state market


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Despite the ongoing problem of illegally-imported honey, Oregons bee industry continues to grow said  Paul Andersen, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association. This time of year, Oregon’s beekeepers are counting their hives and getting ready for a busy summer of tending bees and selling honey.

With growing consumer interest in locally sourced food, local honey producers expect record prices at area farmers’ markets — along with lots of questions about honey quality and authenticity.

“I have customers who won’t buy honey from the store,” said Paul Andersen, president of the 250-member Oregon State Beekeepers Association. That’s because illegally imported honey continues to plague the U.S. honey industry. Once bogus honey starts moving through the commercial system, it is nearly impossible to figure out where it came from, Andersen said.

From October through January, agents with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized nearly a half-million pounds of illegally imported Chinese honey valued at $2.45 million. Agents intercepted illegal honey shipments worth $1.4 million in Seattle in 2010. U.S. Department of Justice officials seized 10,000 gallons of counterfeit honey from a warehouse in Salem a few years ago.

U.S. Customs and Homeland Security investigators are on the lookout for illegal honey imports from Chinese shippers who attempt to elude millions of dollars in U.S. trade tariffs by mislabeling the honey’s country of origin. In addition, Chinese honey can be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals from improper storage or diluted with such ingredients as corn syrup.

The low-priced bogus, counterfeit and illegal honey (terms all used by industry experts) gets into the American food system and is very hard to trace. In late March, inspectors intercepted 300 55-gallon drums of “contaminated” Chinese honey at the Port of Houston. It went to a landfill for disposal.

Four years ago, the European Union banned honey imports. That has created more pressure to get illegal honey into the United States, industry experts say. Large U.S. packers buy honey from around the world — China, Australia and India, as well as Argentina, Brazil and Vietnam, among others nations. In some cases, China has shipped honey to these countries for relabeling and sale in the United States.

Demand pushes up price

Demand is there. Americans eat a lot more honey than domestic beekeepers can produce.

As a result, the price of wholesale honey has steadily increased the past several years from $1.90 per pound in 2012 to this year’s expected price of more than $2.50 per pound, reports the American Honey Producers Association.

Oregon beekeepers can expect record prices for well-sourced, small-batch honey at $6 to $7 per pound and up, Andersen said. Wholesale production honey sells for $2 to $2.50 per pound.

“Small producers all are benefiting from artisan food trends and the desire for locally produced honey,” he said. “It’s the larger operators that can be impacted by counterfeit honey. Consumers, meanwhile, don’t want to pay American prices for cheap Chinese honey,” he said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paul Andersen is president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association.

State producers multiply

Last year, honey production in the United States reached 178 million pounds and sold at an average price of $2.16 a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Oregon, beekeepers produced 2.17 million pounds of honey worth an estimated $5.2 million.

With only 60,000 bee colonies, Oregon ranks as a small producer compared to South Dakota with 265,000 bee colonies and North Dakota with 480,000 colonies.

Honey production in Oregon is slowly increasing even as the number of beekeeping farms has grown rapidly. The number of honey-producing farms has increased from an estimated 360 in 2007 to 530, statewide.

Meanwhile, Andersen wonders how much bogus honey is getting into the United States.

“It’s really a complex issue ... the way it’s brought in, moved through brokers, and relabeled in all sorts of ways,” he said. “It’s a matter of opening up each barrel and testing it. It’s much better for everyone, and cheaper, to catch it at the ports before it gets into the system.”

That’s what happened in Houston in January when inspectors seized illegal honey from China, according to a report from the True Source Honey Certification Program.

These illegal imports “threaten the U.S. honey industry — from beekeeper to packer — by undercutting fair market prices and damaging honey’s reputation for quality and safety,” said Eric Wenger, chairman of the certification effort. U.S. packers using the certification now represent about one-third of the honey sold in the nation, Wenger said.

Andersen, who manages 20 hives in the Aloha area, said it is important to get the word out about illegal imports. But meanwhile, he said, Oregon’s beekeeping industry continues to grow with bee populations stabilizing and increasing.

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