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Funny Honey? Bringing Trust To A Sector Full Of Suspicion

A Chinese beekeeper harvests honey beside a rapeseed field in Anhui province. China is a major producer of honey and bee products. (AFP/Getty Images)

Honey is the most natural of sweeteners, coming to us directly from bees and flowers.

Well, maybe not so directly. These days, a long supply chain often links beehives half a world away with the jar of honey in your kitchen. And there's suspicion in that supply chain: global trade disputes; accusations of unfair competition; even honey identity-switching.

To get to the bottom of all this unwholesome controversy, we paid a visit to Dutch Gold Honey in Lancaster, Pa. Dutch Gold is one of the country's top 10 honey packers. It sells honey under many different labels, including the house labels of some big supermarket chains.

It is also, as it happens, the birthplace of the now-ubiquitous bear-shaped honey bottle. "Believe it or not, the person who invented the honey bear was Ralph Gamber, the founder of Dutch Gold," says Jill Clark, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. "He and his wife were having dinner with a couple from out west, and they said, 'We really need a new unique container for honey! Winnie the Pooh's really popular, and so is Yogi the Bear, so why don't we come up with a squeezable honey bear?'"

That was 1956. The honey business was simpler back then. For one thing, American bees made most of America's honey.

Today? Well, just take a peek inside Dutch Gold's warehouse. You see tall stacks of 50-gallon drums, all filled with honey. They come from North Dakota, South Dakota, California, Argentina, Vietnam and India. More than half of all the honey that Americans consume today is imported from abroad.

But did all that honey really come from bees in the countries that are listed on those steel drums? This is where the accusations of smuggling and forgery arise.

There are special restrictions on honey imports from one country: China. And some Chinese honey exporters have been trying to evade those restrictions.

China is the world's biggest producer of honey, and up until a few years ago, it shipped large quantities of honey to the U.S. Chinese honey was cheap. It was so cheap, in fact, that American beekeepers complained it was driving them out of business.

They complained that China was dumping that honey, selling it for an artificially low price.

In 2001, U.S. officials agreed. For most of the following decade, the U.S. tried different ways to slow down imports of Chinese honey, but nothing worked too well. Finally, in 2008, officials simply imposed huge import duties on all honey from China. This made Chinese honey very expensive, and it almost completely shut down imports of honey from China.

But did it really? Dutch Gold's Jill Clark says statistics of U.S. honey imports tell a curious story. At the moment when imports of Chinese honey dried up, "all of a sudden we saw these other countries starting to sell a lot of honey into the U.S., and they weren't countries that tended to have any commercial beekeeping." The big increases came from some of China's neighbors: Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Clark says that Dutch Gold figured it had to be falsely labeled honey that was really coming from China. "We were offered it many times, and with these very cheap prices we knew exactly what it was. It was nothing that we wanted anything to do with whatsoever," she says.

There was more evidence than just the price. There was pollen. When bees collect nectar from flowers, they bring back pollen, too, and it ends up in raw honey. Scientists can look at those grains of pollen under a microscope and tell if they came from flowers that grow in China but not in Indonesia.

Ron Phipps, president of a honey importing company called CPNA International, got some samples of the Indonesian and Malaysian honey, and decided to check them out. "We've had them tested, and the pollen content was typical of China and not of those countries," he says.

The evidence that this was really Chinese honey was so convincing that U.S. government officials stepped in to shut down those imports, too. They held up shipments, demanding more documentation. They indicted some Chinese and German honey dealers for fraud.

The honey from Indonesia and Malaysia dried up late last year, as quickly as it appeared.

But Phipps believes that Chinese exporters have found a new trade route. This year, he says, "we saw a huge surge in Indian honey entering our country."

Phipps is convinced that this is really Chinese honey, too. But this time the evidence is not as clear. Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, India does have a history of honey production. Also, laboratories are not finding Chinese pollen in this honey.

Phipps thinks that the lack of pollen is simply evidence that the Chinese have found another way to game the system. He thinks that the Chinese are filtering that honey before they export it, to remove the pollen. Then they're mixing it into raw Indian honey, with pollen that indicates that it's from India.

It's suspicion, not proof. But as long as the U.S. tries to block honey from the world's biggest honey producer, there will be suspicion that China is finding ways around the American blockade. Every shipment of honey from Asia is suspect.

Some honey retailers have decided that this is bad for business, and bad for the image of honey.

Five of the biggest honey retailers in the country — including Dutch Gold — are setting up a system that they hope will clear away all that suspicion.

It's called True Source Honey.

Eric Wenger is president of True Source Honey. Soon, he's going to Vietnam to help with the first audit of a Vietnamese honey exporter.

"The question we want to answer is: Does that exporter only purchase honey from beekeepers in that country?" he says.

The exporter will give the True Source auditor a list of the beekeepers from whom it buys honey. "Then the auditor will randomly select a number of those beekeepers, go out to that beekeeper's apiary, and evaluate the capacity of that beekeeper to produce the volume that that exporter claimed was purchased and shipped," says Wenger.

If everything checks out, that exporter is certified. But even after that, True Source will take samples from every shipment of honey and send those samples to a lab in Germany to see if the pollen matches the flowers that are actually blooming in Vietnam.

True Source wants to expand this system globally. One exporter in India is already certified.

Jill Clark, from Dutch Gold Honey, says these sorts of audited, verified supply chains are getting more common throughout the food business. In some cases, governments are requiring it.

"With all the food safety and food security issues, knowing where your food comes from right now is incredibly important," she says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Honey may be the most ancient of sweeteners, but it hasn't escaped the complications of the modern world. It's caught up in global trade disputes, accusations of unfair competition, and dark rumors that some of the honey on supermarket shelves isn't quite what it seems. NPR's Dan Charles explains.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Honey, of course, comes from places where lots of flowers bloom, which helps explain why even big players in the honey industry tend to be in smallish cities surrounded by countryside, like Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This is the headquarters of Dutch Gold Honey. It's one of the top 10 honey packers in the country. Their honey is sold under lots of different labels.

Before they let me visit the packing line, I have to put on a hair net, also a beard net. And there they are, a long line of little plastic bears patiently waiting to be filled with golden sweetness.

JILL CLARK: Believe it or not, the person who invented the honey bear was Ralph Gamber, the founder of Dutch Gold.

CHARLES: This is Jill Clark, who's in charge of sales and marketing at Dutch Gold.

CLARK: He and his wife were having dinner with a couple from out west, and they were saying, you know, we really need a new unique container for honey.

CHARLES: That was 1956. The honey business was simpler back then. For one thing, American bees made most of America's honey. Today, well, take a walk down the hallway to Dutch Gold's warehouse.

CLARK: We're just going to shortcut down through here.

CHARLES: But stay out of the way of the little electric trucks zooming around with 50-gallon drums perched on front. Those drums are all filled with honey.

RON KAUFMAN: This load right here came from North Dakota. The silver drums over here come from Canada.

CHARLES: Ron Kaufman is one of the vehicle drivers. He also keeps bees in his spare time.

KAUFMAN: All these brown drums right here are all from Argentina. If you walk down the aisle, Vietnam, Vietnam drums. The red drums on the far back there, India.

CHARLES: More than half of all the honey that Americans consume these days comes from other countries. Long supply chains connect this warehouse to beehives half a world away. But there's trouble in those supply chains, uncertainty about where honey's really coming from. There are accusations of smuggling, rumors of forged shipping documents. To understand why, you need to step back in time just a few years to the 1990s, when the U.S. got a lot of its honey from China. China's the world biggest producer of honey. Chinese honey was cheap. It was so cheap, American beekeepers complained it was driving them out of business. They went to the government claiming that China was dumping that honey, selling it for an artificially low price. U.S. officials agreed. And to level the playing field, they imposed huge import duties on Chinese honey. So now the Chinese can't sell their honey in the U.S.; it's too expensive. But they can send it to any other country. And those countries, they can export it to the U.S. So suppose you're a honey exporter in China. What would you do? Dutch Gold's Jill Clark says statistics of U.S. honey imports tell the story. Two years ago, imports of Chinese honey practically disappeared.

CLARK: But all of the sudden we saw these other countries starting to sell a lot of honey in the United States at very low prices. And they aren't countries that tended to have any commercial beekeeping.

CHARLES: Countries like?

CLARK: The countries we were noticing were Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan.

CHARLES: People called it funny honey. Jill Clark says her company figured it had to be falsely labeled honey that was really coming from China.

CLARK: We were offered it many times, and with these very cheap prices we knew exactly what it was. It was nothing that we wanted anything to do with whatsoever.

CHARLES: There was more evidence than just the price; there was the pollen. You see, when bees collect nectar from flowers, they bring back pollen too, and it ends up in the raw honey. And scientists can look at those grains of pollen under a microscope and tell if they come from flowers that grow in China but not, for instance, Indonesia. Ron Phipps, president of a honey importing company called CPNA International, got some samples of the Indonesian and Malaysian honey and decided to check them out.

RON PHIPPS: We've had them tested and the pollen content is pollen typical of China, not of all those countries.

CHARLES: The evidence that this was really Chinese honey was so convincing, U.S. government officials stepped in to shut down those imports too. They held up shipments, demanding more documentation. They indicted some Chinese and German honey dealers for fraud. The honey from Indonesia and Malaysia dried up late last year, as quickly as it appeared. But Ron Phipps says Chinese exporters are creative and this year they found a new trade route.

PHIPPS: Suddenly we saw a huge surge of Indian honey entering our country.

CHARLES: Phipps is convinced this is really Chinese honey, but this time the evidence is not so clear. India does produce lots of its own honey, and has for many years. Also, laboratories aren't finding Chinese pollen in this honey. Phipps thinks it's just evidence that the Chinese have another way to game the system. He thinks the Chinese are filtering that honey before they export it to remove the pollen. And then they're mixing it into raw Indian honey, so anybody who looks will find that Indian pollen and think all the honey is from India. This is suspicion, not proof. But as long as the U.S. tries to block honey from the world's biggest honey producer, there will be suspicion that China is finding ways around the American blockade. Every shipment of honey from Asia is suspect. So now some honey retailers are saying this is bad for business. It's bad for the image of honey. Five of the biggest honey retailers in the country, including Dutch Gold, are setting up a system that they hope will clear away all that suspicion. It's called True Source Honey. Eric Wenger's president of True Source. In a few weeks he's going to Vietnam to help with the first audit of a Vietnamese honey exporter.

ERIC WENGER: So the question that we want to answer is, does that exporter only purchase honey from beekeepers in that country?

CHARLES: The exporter will give True Source Honey a list of the beekeepers where it buys honey.

WENGER: And then the auditor will randomly select a number of those beekeepers, and then they will go out to that beekeeper's apiary and essentially evaluate the capacity of that beekeeper to produce the volume that that exporter claims was purchased and then shipped.

CHARLES: If everything checks out, that exporter is certified. But True Source will still take samples from every shipment of honey and send those samples to a lab in Germany to see if the pollen matches the flowers that are actually blooming in Vietnam. True Source wants to expand this globally. One exporter in India is already certified. Jill Clark at Dutch Gold Honey says these sorts of audited, verified supply chains are getting more common throughout the food business. In some cases governments are requiring it.

CLARK: With all the food safety and food security issues, knowing where your food comes from right now is incredibly important.

CHARLES: Dutch Gold wants to convince its customers that honey is just as wholesome and trustworthy as it seemed when the honey bear was invented. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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