Federal investigators from various agencies in Seattle and Chicago chased illegally labeled Chinese honey from the slums of the Philippines through dilapidated Thai warehouses and into ports up and down the west coast of the U.S.
The paper trail showed that some of the illegal honey was bought by a huge Midwest food distributor, which supplied major grocery chains, investigators said.
Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Chung Po Liu at his home in Bellevue, Wash., and Boa Zhong Zhang and Yong Xiang Yan at LAX as they arrived from China. All were charged with conspiracy for attempting to smuggle millions of dollars worth of honey – possibly contaminated with illegal antibiotics — into the United States.
The names of all three men and their companies came up in my five-month investigation into honey laundering, which was published by the Seattle PI in December.
Three of the many things I learned during that investigation were:
This could never happen unless honey packers and sellers in the U.S. were involved.
There is an enormous amount of contraband honey being smuggled into this country.
Major, legitimate U.S. honey dealers are doing little or nothing to alert the Food and Drug Administration when they encounter illegal honey.
The 68-year-old Liu heads at least two Seattle-based companies, Rainier Cascade and Evergreen Produce. Both companies import and sell honey to a long list of packers in the U.S. Liu works with Zhang, a 58-year-old Chinese national who is employed by Changge Jixiang Bee products Ltd., in Changge City, Henan Province.
Yan, according to investigators, is the president of the same Chinese honey manufacturing company which has 528 employees and has been in the honey business since 1985.
Yan was arrested for supplying tainted Chinese honey to Alfred L. Wolff, a major food distribution company in Chicago. Wolff supplies honey to packagers who sell it under a score of different brands across the U.S., investigators say.
The criminal complaint, filed in Chicago, said the charges against Yan stem from an ongoing investigation (entering its third year) of the honey importing practices of Wolff, which is owned by Wolff & Olsen, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.
An FDA investigator familiar with the Chicago company told me that invoices he’d seen from two manufacturers who bought from Wolff showed that most of the honey was being sold to major grocery chains, where it was labeled as produced in the United States or Canada.
He said he didn’t know whether the chains that bought the bogus honey were notified of its actual country of origin. He added that he doubted it.
It is almost impossible for those who import and sell honey not to know that it’s Chinese. The price of honey from China is usually only about a third of the cost of honey from Canada, South America or other credible suppliers.
For example, Ron Phipps, of CPNA International, Ltd., publishes a frequent international market report on honey. In a recent issue, he explained that in January, 1.2 million pounds of honey entered this country at 37-cents a pound. At the same time, Canadian honey was crossing the border at about $1.55 a pound.
Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of the Seattle office of ICE, said, “Those who misrepresent the origin of goods imported into the United States are motivated by greed and unfairly seek a financial advantage over those who play by the rules.’’
The issue goes beyond just the millions in import duties that were being stolen from U.S. coffers. There are potential health risks involved because millions of China’s hives were destroyed by a virulent disease that swept through the country’s hives at tsunami speed. Beekeepers grabbed the strongest and cheapest antibiotics they could find – two from India and one from China – to fight back.
The most prevalent antibiotic was chloramphenicol. The drug is used to treat serious infections in humans, but is not approved by the FDA for use in food producing animals, including bees.
Honey containing chloramphenicol is deemed unsafe and adulterated within the meaning of the federal food and drug laws, Andrew Boutros, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago. said.
The presence of the antibiotic, even small amounts, is illegal.
During the PI investigation, I followed paper trails of illegally laundered shipments from China to countries throughout Asia and the South Pacific, where it was re-labeled to make it appear it was a product of those other countries. Then it was shipped on to the U.S.
Once those stories ran, people sent the PI evidence showing that Chinese honey was also being transshipped from Europe, South America and at least one African country.
The arrests and the investigation leading up to them demonstrated creative police work by ICE, Customs and Border Protection agents, and the offices of two U.S. Attorneys. It was a solid, on the ground, door-knocking investigation that involved chasing intricate, multi-lingual paper trails. (You just gotta love those search warrants.)
If found guilty of the conspiracy charges, the accused could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.