China, the world's largest producer of honey, would seem a natural candidate to fill the gap. But Chinese honey is notorious for containing the banned antibiotic chloramphenicol, used by farmers to keep bees from falling ill. The European Union outlawed Chinese honey imports because of it.
Dilution is another issue. According to Grace Pundyk, author of The Honey Trail, Chinese manufacturers will inject a type of honey with litres of water, heat it, pass it through an ultrafine ceramic or carbon filter, and then distill it into syrup. While it eradicates impurities such as antibiotics, it also denies honey of its essence.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce accused the Chinese honey industry of dumping cheap product into the American market at prices well below the cost of production. Canadians also detected surprisingly low-priced product crossing its own borders.
The spread of inexpensive honey prompted an outcry from local beekeepers in both countries, most of whom could not compete with the Chinese players.
In the U.S., a hefty tariff - more than two dollars for every kilogram of Chinese-origin honey - was levied. But the tax only temporarily dammed the flow. Official Chinese honey exports to the U.S. fell, but the country's honey production capacity increased, according to statistics collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
"We saw a flurry of honey starting to come into the U.S. from countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines - that had never been exporters to the U.S. before," said Jill Clark, vice-president of sales at Dutch Gold, a honey vendor involved in a multi-stakeholder effort to stop laundering. "All of a sudden they had millions of pounds of honey to sell, at very cheap prices."
Combing a conspiracy
Australian investigators uncovered the roots of a global conspiracy when they intercepted a large consignment of "Singapore" honey bound for the U.S. in 2002.
At the time, Singapore didn't produce honey. The shipment was traced back to China, opening the first window into a worldwide scheme in early bloom: The industry had figured out they could launder Chinese honey through neutral countries able to ship into the U.S. without paying tariffs.
A group of executives at the German food ingredients conglomerate Alfred L. Wolff GmbH (ALW) were early masters of this model, according to allegations contained in U.S. court documents. Headquartered in Hamburg, ALW has subsidiaries and affiliates around the world, including in China and Chicago. After the U.S. tariffs were levied, ALW, the largest honey importer in the U.S., began networking with Chinese honey producers and brokers desperate to unload cheap products.
In exchange for contracts with ALW, honey brokers agreed to move Chinese-origin honey to Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, according to court documents.
The brokers also agreed to repackage the honey and muddy its trail by using a series of shell companies to ship it to the U.S. That meant falsifying country of origin certificates and, in some cases, deliberately mislabeling honey as molasses, fructose or glucose syrup so customs officials would not notice a suspect increase in honey shipments. Brokers were told to hire specific labs that specialized in filtering the honey to remove markers (such as pollen or soil) that could be used to trace shipments back to their true origin, according to court documents that outline the U.S. government's case.
One e-mail from an ALW executive to his "favourite honey scientist" shows the executive suggesting Russia as his preferred "botanical origin" for listing on falsified documents.
"Okay: Russia possible, I can accept," the scientist replied. "Will send out the changed/altered certificate today. So long as none of the characteristic pollens other than canola appear, then nobody in fact can say from where the honey comes."
A bonus to those in the laundering scheme, U.S. food inspectors had a more lax approach to inspecting shipments that did not appear to have a Chinese connection. Tests conducted by food inspectors are based on country-of-origin information; if Chinese roots aren't declared on shipments, inspectors will not test for the chemicals associated with honey production in China, meaning contaminated loads are less likely to be detected or seized and can still be sold for consumption. The same is true of honey diluted with cheaper sweeteners, which is often passed off to consumers as the real thing.