I know. I have done a horrible job of keeping the blog active and interesting and many have expressed your views on my laziness or concerns on my demise. For the past few months I have been on the road chasing several stories that raised possible public health issues.
We finally got one into print and on to the web. It’s called “Honey Laundering,” and this is a link to a collection of the six stories.
Honey? A public health concern?
Bizarre. I agree.
But in answer to several dozen e-mails, allow me to chat a bit on how and why I did the stories.
It started innocently enough, as many complex stories do. One of my colleagues – our brilliant port reporter � mention that a friend had bought a jar of honey with “Product of Washington State,” on the label and wasn’t sure whether it was even real honey.
I called around to the analytical laboratories that we usually use to test “things” for contaminants. Even though the P-I’s ($$$$$) lab bills have sent the offspring of the labs’ owners to fine, private universities, they all said they didn’t have the technology to tell us the geographic source of the flowers the bees hit up for the honey.
So I called an old friend in a federal lab near DC and she lamented that none of the government labs could answer that questions and gave me the names of three civilian labs in Texas, Massachusetts and Oregon that analyze honey samples for the feds.
Huh? Why is our government testing honey anyhow?
I called the labs and yes, they said, they do test honey for the government � for things like adulteration � where liquids and sweet syrups � corn, cane, rice and others � are added to dilute pure honey into something much, much cheaper to produce and that brings in a significantly higher profit.
More importantly, they also said they test for a cheap animal antibiotic called chloramphenicol, which can cause serious illness or death among a very small percentage of people exposed to it. And sometimes other antibiotics called iprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin.
Finally, I got it through my thick skull that what they were testing, in almost all cases, was foreign honey. I had no clue that U.S. bees produce about only a third of the honey we consume.
This is how we got the story:
The information came from about 180 plus interviews, 422 e-mails, elaborate databases of thousands of ocean shipping documents from Import-Genus and Trade-Mining LLC. Daniel Lathrop’s (our computer guru) skillful manipulations of customs and Commerce Department tallies of honey shipments crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders and Aubrey Cohen, our real estate wizard, who translated Russian letters and customs documents.
However, the truth would never have shown through without help and patience of lots of beekeepers, honey importers and packers, apiculturists, some federal agents who help sort through misinformation being shoveled by their Washington headquarters. Especially surprising was the help offered in Canada, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Australia from honey brokers and producers, Foreign and U.S. overseas trade and ICE officials, and honey associations.
I encountered some really amazing people, and I’ll write a bit about some of them in coming days.
For those of you who don’t want to wade through the stories, here are the points they make: Most U.S. and Canadian honey is of high quality and safe; the large majority of honey consumed in the U.S. is imported; millions of pounds of Chinese honey destine for the U.S., is transshipped and frequently mislabeled as coming from a different foreign country; some importers and honey packers are in on the con; federal investigators and some large honey importer say they still find Chinese honey tainted with illegal medications; FDA, USDA and customs agents have far too much on their plates to pay much attention to honey and only a smallest fraction of honey seeping through out borders is ever tested.
So I ask myself why did I spend so long on a topic that presents � when compared to other issues � such a benign risk?
This comment from David Westervelt, one of Florida State’s 15 highly trained apiculture inspectors, may explain my concern:
“Someday, some really harmful honey will be shipped into this country, and a lot of people will get sick or worse – and then the government will do something about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for people to get sick.”