They Call it “Honey Laundering”

Several readers have mentioned the Chinese honey flap from a few years ago, specifically the allegations that Chinese producers ultra-filter their honey to remove any traces of pollen, thus making it easier for them to sneak their ultra-cheap product onto global markets, as there is no longer any micro-evidence of its origin. The process was said to remove anything that’s unique or beneficial in the honey, leaving nothing but the sugars. “Honey that isn’t worthy of the name ‘honey'” was the line you heard a lot in those days, or something close to it. The story was initially spread by an American attorney who owns a website called Food Safety News and who frequently represents plaintiffs in cases against large food interests.

It quickly gained currency at legitimate new outlets around the world. The trouble with the accusation was that most honey sold by large packagers is also almost totally devoid of pollen, not to mention wax bits, dirt, and other non-sugar substances. The process that’s used isn’t “filtering” exactly. Diatomaceous earth — a naturally-occurring porous rock that’s been powdered — is added to the honey, which causes all the non-syrup “bits” to clump together so they can be easily removed.

The process is called “flocculation”, but the real question is: why do it? Part of the answer is obvious: to remove anything that might turn out to be a contaminant. However there’s also another important reason American honey producers take all these little things out: to prevent crystallization. Unlike most other societies on the planet, Americans prefer to take their honey in liquid form. Since any particle — however tiny — is a potential nucleation site for a sugar crystal, removing the little bits keeps the honey in a liquid state for longer. So unless all commercial liquid honey doesn’t deserve the name “honey” — a perfectly reasonable point of view, though I don’t share it — the story was much ado about nothing.

Which is not to say that that there aren’t any problems with Chinese honey. Part of the reason the story spread so quickly was because honey lovers and beekeepers have had a grudge against the Chinese for a couple of decades now. Cheap Chinese honey— some of it of highly questionable quality — began flooding American markets in the 90’s. How cheap was it? So cheap that it could be packaged, shipped and sold on store shelves for less than it cost the average American beekeeper to collect it.

Starting in 2001 the U.S. government started imposing tariffs on Chinese honey to keep the imports from completely crushing the American honey industry. Governments in other countries have done the same, though America is by far the largest single market for honey in the world. Sadly the tariffs haven’t completely stopped cheap Chinese honey from making it onto US markets. So-called “honey laundering” schemes are rampant whereby Chinese honey is sold to, say, a Korean distributor who puts a Korean label on it and re-sells it to an American company. It’s all illegal of course. Indeed American employees of a German company called ALW were convicted and jailed in 2006 for orchestrating just such a scheme.

That’s a global economy for you I suppose, for better or worse. In theory it should be possible to trace Chinese honey in American products by identifying residual pollens that remain in even the most well-flocculated or filtered honey. However the sort of microbotanical expertise required to perform the feat is such that there are maybe two or three experts on the planet who could actually do it. Which means the Chinese honey drama will persist.

6 thoughts on “They Call it “Honey Laundering””

  1. Are you certain diatomaceous earth acts as a flocculant?

    Diatomaceous earth is generally employed as a ultra-fine filter media.

    I’d bet the flocculant is some other material, probably an alkaline substance.

    1. You know I’ll bet your right about that. I’ll make a call to one of my go-to sources to see if I can find out for sure. The source material I used said it was used as a “clumping additive” for the removal of particulates and I made the leap. Maybe that was completely wrong and it was talking about a filter, or maybe its some other process that I’m not fully understanding.

      Thanks for the assist, Elinda!

      – Joe

  2. Did you know that diatomaceous earth is also sprayed on pear trees in the spring to help prevent pear psylla from laying eggs on the trees? If you drive by pear orchards in the Pacific NW before the leaves are on the trees you’ll see all these “ghost” trees — those are the pears that have been sprayed. I’ve been told that the DE acts like tiny little balls that the psylla can’t walk on, so they move else where. So far, seems to work pretty well!

  3. Although the illegal trade violations you mention are one issue, the most concerning aspects are contamination with antibiotics such as chloramphenicol, and heavy metals, usually lead. Another issue is ‘honey’ that is actually composed primarily of honey-flavored thickened sweeteners.

    1. True enough. There are some serious quality issues at stake as well.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      – Joe

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