As crime sagas go, a scheme rigged by a sophisticated cartel of global traders has all the right blockbuster elements: clandestine movements of illegal substances through a network of co-operatives in Asia, a German conglomerate, jet-setting executives, doctored laboratory reports, high-profile takedowns and fearful turncoats.
What makes this worldwide drama unusual, other than being regarded as part of the largest food fraud in U.S. history, is the fact that honey, nature's benign golden sweetener, is the lucrative contraband.
Honey has become a staple in the North American diet. Those that do not consume it straight from bear-shaped squeeze bottles eat it regularly whether they know it or not - honey is baked into everything from breakfast cereals to cookies and mixed into sauces and cough drops. Produced by bees from the nectar of flowers and then strained for clarity, honey's all-natural origin has garnered lofty status among health-conscious consumers who prefer products without refined sweeteners (think white sugar and processed corn syrup). About 1.2 million metric tons of honey is produced worldwide each year.
What consumers don't know is that honey doesn't usually come straight - or pure - from the hive. Giant steel drums of honey bound for grocery store shelves and the food processors that crank out your cereal are in constant flow through the global market. 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.
None of this is on the label. Rarely will a jar of honey say "Made in China." Instead, Chinese honey sold in North America is more likely to be stamped as Indonesian, Malaysian or Taiwanese, due to a growing multimillion dollar laundering system designed to keep the endless supply of cheap and often contaminated Chinese honey moving into the U.S., where tariffs have been implemented to staunch the flow and protect its own struggling industry.
Also struggling is the country's agriculturally vital bee population. A report released Monday found that four previously abundant species of bumblebee are close to disappearing. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented a 96-per-cent decline in the numbers of the four species.
Industry insiders began tracking the questionable cargo years ago when low-priced honey from surprising countries infiltrated the market. But federal law enforcement officials have only begun to home in.
Savvy honey handlers use a network of Asian countries to "wash" Chinese-origin product - with new packaging and false documents - before shipping it to the U.S. for consumption in various forms.
Fifteen people and six companies spanning from Asia to Germany and the U.S. were recently indicted in Chicago and Seattle for their roles in an $80-million gambit still playing out in the courts. That case has been billed as the largest food fraud in U.S. history. But American beekeepers, already suffering from a bee death epidemic that is killing off a third of their colonies a year, say the flow of suspect imports has not let up.
"We see a flood, an avalanche of [laundered]honey continuing," said Ron Phipps, a global honey markets expert. "It has created a two-tier market where cheap, illegal honey … has a huge competitive advantage," he said, adding: "It's really putting the domestic industry on the verge of crisis."
At stake is more than just a sweet industry.
Honeybees are responsible for pollinating millions of acres of agricultural crops, including fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and legumes, worth $20-billion annually in the U.S. alone. More than a quarter of the human diet hinges on those crops.
"If we lose our honey industry in the U.S., there's going to be massive food shortages like we haven't seen before," said Richard Adee, a South Dakota beekeeper who owns 80,000 honeybee colonies, the largest operation in the U.S.
Mr. Phipps said the worry is not overblown.
"It's really an issue, for America, of national security," he said. "It concerns the security of the food supply and the ability of the nation to feed itself."
In the honey world, there are two types of countries: producers and consumers. The United States is one of the largest of the latter, consuming about 400 million pounds of honey a year. Its beekeepers can produce only half that amount leaving exporters to fill the rest. Canada produces about 65 million pounds of honey a year and ships its surplus, 20 to 30 million pounds, south of the border.