andrew schneider investigates

May 28, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: New butter flavoring for popcorn and other food products may be no safer than the lung-injuring diacetyl it replaces.

Scientists worry that the “new,” “completely safe” butter flavoring used on popcorn and in other foods may be as dangerous as the lung-destroying chemical, called diacetyl, that it replaced.

Diacetyl-linked jury verdicts of tens of millions of dollars for injured flavoring workers and the diagnoses of lung damage in at least three popcorn-loving consumers forced popcorn packers and other food processors to stop using the chemical butter-flavoring two years ago.

Orville Redenbacher rose from the grave to proudly announce in a TV ad that the company’s popcorn was now diacetyl-free. And other manufacturers plastered that message in large type on the side of their packages.

popcorn-bowlAWhen asked in the last two years how they were getting the buttery flavor consumers want without diacetyl, the largest popcorn makers answered with a “no comment,” saying the secret flavoring was safe, but proprietary.

Fortunately, a group of government health investigators at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have begun lifting the veil of corporate secrecy.

“Two possible substitutes are starter distillate and diacetyl trimmer,” NIOSH Drs. Kathleen Kreiss and Nancy Sahakian just wrote in a newly released book, “Advances in Food and Nutrition Research.

“The distillate is a diacetyl-containing product of a fermentation process. The trimmer is a molecule containing three  diacetyl  molecules,” they wrote. “The inclusion of these alternative substances neither eliminate diacetyl nor assure safety for workers.’’

Kreiss, chief of NIOSH’s Field Studies Branch, also talked about the popcorn advertisements in informal remarks prepared for the American Thoracic Society conference earlier this month in San Diego.

“The wording here (no added diacetyl) is telling,” said Kreiss, whose team of worker health and safety investigators were the first to respond to the reports of disease at Midwest popcorn plants.

In the presentation to the specialists in respiratory disease, Kreiss discussed the flavoring to which many food producers had switched.

“The easiest substitute for the chemical diacetyl is starter distillate, a fermentation product of milk which contains up to 4 percent diacetyl. The chemical may not be added, but diacetyl is still in butter-flavored popcorn,” she explained.

She said some of the substitutes are better able to penetrate to the deepest parts of the lung and are unlikely to be safer to inhale than the original diacetyl.

Physicians, scientists and industrial hygienists at NIOSH’s Division of Respiratory Disease Studies are working hard on multiple efforts to investigate the possible toxicity of butter flavoring chemicals being used as a substitute for the diacetyl.

“We’re trying to identify the mechanism of diacetyl-induced injury. And if that happens, it will help us identify other potentially hazardous compounds workers may be exposed to in the flavoring industry,” said Dr. Ann Hubbs, a veterinary pathologist in NIOSH’s Health Effects Laboratory Division.

Hubbs told me last week,  “We are trying hard to answer the question of why diacetyl — and potentially the related substances — are so very toxic,”

Kreiss and her team have responded to plants using flavorings throughout the country. They have watched patiently as OSHA first ignored and then moved haltingly to comply with congressional orders and union pleas to develop diacetyl exposure standards that would protect workers.

But even though President Obama’s new team at the Labor Department promised speedy action on diacetyl standards, many public health and occupational medicine experts worry that it may be too little, coming too late.

“As regulatory action develops, the flavor industry has introduced diacetyl substitutes, which might not be regulated by a diacetyl standard now on the drawing board,” Kreiss said in notes accompanying her slide presentation to the chest doctors.

Dr. Celeste Monforton and her colleagues at George Washington University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health have been following the diacetyl issue for years.

She echoes NIOSH and says that OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration must pay attention to the substitutes in its rulemaking if workers and consumers are to be protected.

“We know far too little about the the substitutes to diacetyl or reformulated diacetyl-compounds that food manufacturers are now using, or planning to use,” she told me this week.

As a part of its rule making, OSHA must insist that the manufacturers provide information on the chemical composition and toxicity testing of their substitutes, she said.

“We are dealing with the safety of workers and consumers and secrecy cannot be justified,” Monforton said.

“This potential danger goes well beyond just popcorn.”

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May 26, 2009

Crime lab tools can identify mislabeled and smuggled seafood faster and easier and diners might get the fish they pay for.

Filed under: Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 05:37

Food scientists are taking a page out of the crime fighting handbook to figure out whether consumers and restaurants are actually getting the seafood they are paying for.

A study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology demonstrates that a DNA testing can quickly and inexpensively  tell you whether the fish you’re paying for is actually what you thought you were buying.

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen Photo by Lynn Ketchum

“Fish and seafood substitution has become an important concern in domestic and international marketplaces, in part due to increased international trade, per capita seafood consumption, and production of processed foods,” says Rosalee Rasmussen of Oregon State University seafood laboratories in Astoria.

Investigators with the Food and Drug Administration say “economic deception or fraud in the sale of seafood occurs when a less expensive species is substituted for a more expensive species.” And, they added, “this misbranding is a federal crime.”

In the past, federal investigators have brought charges against importers and suppliers who knowingly misidentified species of fish to avoid paying steep import tariffs imposed to protect both U.S. fishers and endangered fish.

In at least two of the cases, the motivation to test the seafood came from obvious fraud on the shipping papers and, in the other, an informant.

Less expensive rockfish is often substituted for more expensive red snapper; yellowtail tuna instead of Mahi; sea bass for halibut; farm-raised Atlantic salmon for the finer tasting and richer wild Pacific, and even roe from paddlefish labeled as caviar from sturgeon.

In the article, Rasmussen and Prof. Michael Morrissey with the university’s Food Innovation Center in Portland, examined the impact of identifying bogus fish using the DNA techniques more common to CSI crime labs.

Both Rasmussen and federal food investigators say the amount of mislabeling actually is difficult to pin down because there is very little monitoring of the commercial fish supplies

“For example,” Rasmussen told me, “over 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, but the FDA only examines about 2 percent of imported seafood.”

Last week, an FDA supervisor said she agreed with the Oregon scientists.

“We have so very few inspectors watching imported food that seafood is really low on the list,” she said. But “things may get better,” she said, because in March President Obama said he would “substantially increase the number of (FDA) food inspectors and modernize food safety labs.”

William Marler, one of the nation’s top food safety litigators, described the mislabeling as more of a fraud issue than a safety concern because fish and other seafood products, imported or not, make up a very small part of food that poisons consumers.

“From a consumer’s perspective of knowing if what they’re paying for is actually the seafood they thought they were buying, spot DNA testing makes much sense,” said the Seattle-based lawyer.

The food journal article is a compilation of substitution studies conducted by many scientists who have examined whitefish, such as hake, Pollock, and cod; tunas such as skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, and bluefin; and sturgeons, sharks and even commercial whale meat, Rasmussen explained.

I spoke to buyers and fishmongers at two national food chains who said they rarely get taken because they work closely with their suppliers and usually deal with the whole fish, which is easier to identify before it’s packaged as filets or steaks.  Much more likely targets, they said, are restaurants or institutional buyers who purchase much of their imported fish cut and packaged into serving sizes.

Rasmussen  cautioned that diners and consumers will have a much more difficult time telling if mislabeling has occurred if their dinner  has been further processed, such as breaded and fried.

Here is a link to the journal article.

For a more extensive listing of seafood most often wrongly labeled, here is a link to an FDA website.

May 23, 2009

Physician, heal thyself, or at least get to the head of the line.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 10:57

I got an email overnight from someone in Atlanta who said she was outraged because the government is going to “protect a handful of favorites from a killer while ignoring the rest of the population.”

Wow. This great plot for a novel becomes a bit less exciting when all the facts are known.

Yes, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Friday that $1 billion will be spent to produce enough vaccine to protect the medical community, firefighters and emergency responders against the flu formerly known as “swine”.

Part of the money will go to U.S. companies already licensed for other flu vaccines to produce and stockpile protection against Influenza H1N1.

CDC map showing reports of flu

CDC map showing reports of flu

But a good portion of the funds will be used over the summer for clinical studies to better define what is needed in a vaccine for this strain of flu.
“Our goal throughout this new H1N1 outbreak has been to stay one step ahead of the virus,” Sebelius said in a statement.

In answer to the woman who wrote me, the decision to have vaccine available for the public health community, emergency responders and others whose jobs are considered “critical” was not a capricious act, but rather part of the thoroughly researched and endlessly debated National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

First, understand that a pandemic is a sudden outbreak of a serious infectious disease that spreads easily among and affects a large proportion of the population in a region, a continent, or the world.

Think what it would be like if we didn’t protect our physicians, nurses, medics, firefighters and law enforcement to perform their vital services amidst the fear and havoc the disease could generate.

As of Friday, 6,552 cases of H1N1 flu have been reported, and nine people have died from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

For those who suspect a sinister plot behind every decision, here is a link to more than you ever wanted to know about the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

May 21, 2009

Government is sending money to care for asbestos victims in Libby. Will W.R. Grace keep picking up medical bills as it promised?

People in Libby, Mont. are through licking their wounds and are working to put the acquittal earlier this month of W.R. Grace and its executives behind them.

But many say they live in fear that the innocent verdict offered up by the jury will give the former owner of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine the chutzpa to end the insurance coverage they’ve promised to provide to the hundreds of miners and townsfolk sickened by the lethal fibers the corporation pulled out of the ground.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus today passed some good news on to the tiny town in the state’s northwest corner. He says he got the Department of Health and Human Services to free up $6 million to provide health care for people with asbestos-related illness.

“It’s really great news, and we can use some of that up here,” said Dr. Brad Black, who runs the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases clinic in town.

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

“Everyone was scared to death that Grace would stop paying the little it does pay of the medical expenses of the people here,” Black told me today.

With the high cost of medication, oxygen and hospitalization, the $6 million won’t go very far to provide screenings and health care services to the hundreds of people battling asbestos-related illnesses.

However, the senator says that major help may be on the way as he believes he can get a Public Health Emergency declared for Libby.

Battles had been fought throughout the Bush Administration, by OMB and EPA for years over those three little words.

Paul Peronard, Chris Weis and Aubrey Miller – the trio of EPA emergency response and public health specialists who were the first to arrive in Libby a decade ago –  had their careers threatened repeatedly because they saw the need to declare the emergency.

They fought for the designation because it would permit EPA to do the complex cleanup the unique tremolite asbestos demanded, the town needed and would make the government responsible for ensuring the delivery of adequate health care.

The Bush Administration fought the effort because it was trying to force an industry-sponsored asbestos litigation reform act through Congress and wanted no attention brought to the devastation asbestos could impart.

The Democratic lawmaker lambasted the decision to not declare a public health emergency at the time, calling it an “outrage.”

Baucus said a public health emergency would authorize cleanup work in homes and other structures as well as require the federal government to provide screenings and health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related disease.

The public health emergency would be declared by the Environmental Protection Administration.

“I’ve talked with the head of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius and the head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, and they both know how important it is to help the folks in Libby,” Baucus said

“We all have been working for months together to figure out how to best help folks affected by this tragedy.”

Baucus holds senior positions on oversight committees for both HHS and EPA.

He described his action as a step to bring justice to folks in Libby “who were poisoned at the hands of Grace.

“We expect this Administration to make decisions based on sound science and to right the sins of the last Administration.”

The Internet will protect us from dangerous food? It’s a start, the White House says.

Two of President Obama’s cabinet officers today launched a government website as a step in improving the nation’s food safety system or, at least, giving the public a way to see whether the White House is making any progress with a problem that each year sickens tens of thousands and kills hundreds.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, the head of HHS, were named by the president in March to run the White House Food Safety Working Group.hhs_seal_bl_thmb

Vilsack says the group will be an important tool for strengthening the food safety system, making it more accountable and accessible to the public and flexible enough to quickly resolve new food safety challenges that emerge.
USDA logo
“Families have enough to worry about. You shouldn’t have to wonder if the food you buy at the grocery store is safe,” said Health Secretary Sebelius.

Here is a link to the site which the government says will allow people to stay apprised of the group’s progress, learn about food safety tools and practices, and share their views on how to improve the food safety system.

When Obama announced the formation of the group, he told the agency head that it must “ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them.”

Enforcement has long been a problem in the food safety arena as shown by the massive, disjointed, recall of salmonella-tainted peanuts which took months to reach a meaningful level.

The White House group says it will use a public health approach that focuses resources according to risk, applies the best available science and fights, what may be the most difficult battle: cooperation between federal, state, local and international groups.

May 18, 2009

Nanoparticle use grows in consumer products; safety testing inadequate, experts say.

Filed under: FDA,Nanotechnology,Public health legislation,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 12:21

The exciting and potentially benefit-laden world of nanoparticles continues to expand at rates that surpass the growth of any technology in history. Many public health leaders plead for caution and additional research into the widespread human and environmental hazards that could exist with use of nanotechnology. They worry that far too little is being done.
Many of you have written to ask how many products based on nanotech are on the market now or are close to being released for sale. It is almost impossible to know with great accuracy.
Most corporations decline to comment, citing proprietary or competitive concerns. The federal government keeps no tally, and a friend of mine in the Food and Drug Administration says that’s a major mistake that someday will “bite us in the butt.”
There is one group that is watching nanotechnology more closely than anyone else. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trust and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The project was formed in 2005 to address the social, political, and public safety aspects of nanotechnology.
The experts at the partnership acknowledge that their tallies are far from comprehensive, but they offer the best picture out there of what industry is doing with nanoparticles. And they offer the only inventory of consumer products around.

nano products
Here is one of their graphs and some of their facts:

The Consumer Products Inventory today lists 807 products, produced by 457 companies, located in 21 countries.

The inventory is growing fast: from 212 products when it was first released in March 2006, to 803 products in August 2008.

The largest category is health and fitness, including 126 cosmetics, 115 items of clothing, 153 personal care items, 83 types of sporting goods, 33 sunscreens and 40 water filters.
The inventory now includes products from many countries, including the United States, Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Finland, Mexico, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Sweden, Singapore, Canada, and Italy.
The Washington –based researchers say U.S. based companies are marketing the most products (426), followed by companies in Asia (227), Europe (108), and elsewhere around the world (38).
I will try to post updates often on this topic. But here is a link to browse the project’s inventory database:

May 16, 2009

Kill step and an adequate lethality. We can’t be talking about food.

salmonella   Photo CDC

Why would words like “kill step” and “adequate lethality” be in the lexicon of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and major manufacturers of heat-to-eat food?

After putting aside all the complex government and scientific explanations, these war-like sounding phrases are steps that food producers hope and expect consumers will take to keep from being poisoned by salmonella.

I began chasing this issue a bit last year and when I spoke to food scientists at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. They told me that adequate lethality is a kill step, the point where the precise combination of temperature and cooking time will kill biological hazards in food.

They said that far too many consumers wrongly believe that when they pull a frozen meal from the freezer in the grocery it has already been treated to eliminate contamination to salmonella and other bacteria that can cause painful illness and sometimes death.

What most consumers don’t understand is that food packagers, especially those who manufacture frozen food, expect the consumer to take the kill step. The problem is that most shoppers have no clue that this safety burden has been dumped in their pot.

The Association of Food, Beverage and Consumer Products Companies issued guidelines last year for their food production members to pay special attention to instructions given to consumers when it came to foods “not-ready-to-eat.”

They documented that many consumers believe that food is heated for palatability or taste, but is not required for food safety. Because of this belief, people can and do become ill.

The association urged its members to develop instructions for preparing their frozen products that make it clear that the “food must be cooked at a time/temperature combination sufficient to reduce the number of pathogens that might be present . . . to a safe level.”

The key here is not heating, but cooking to the point required to “kill pathogenic microorganisms that may be present in many frozen entrees,” the guidelines cautioned.

A decade or more ago many food processors began labeling their products with phrases such as “Oven Ready,” “Cook and Serve,” and “Ready to Cook,” assuming that consumers would understand that cooking was necessary for safety, not just taste.

The FSIS safety specialists told me that among their greatest were frozen food that is microwaved since uneven heating of foods in microwave ovens has been implicated as a key factor in improperly cooked food products. This non-uniform heating leads to cold spots in the product, which may allow the survival of pathogens such as salmonella.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a national food safety advocacy group, explained that its researchers found that the most dangerous products to be cooked in a microwave are frozen uncooked, breaded chicken and turkey products, some breaded fish and frozen meat and poultry pot pies.

If you want more information on this battle of the bacteria, I urge you to read a fine, comprehensive piece of journalism by New York Times’ writer Michael Moss in Friday’s edition. It may shock you into cooking your foods long enough to make them safe to eat.

Here is a link to it.

May 14, 2009

Pesticide is too dangerous for use in the U.S., but apparently it’s just fine to use in other countries.

Carbofuran, an extremely dangerous pesticide that will be banned in the U.S., can still be sold and used overseas.

This raises concerns among food safety experts that farm workers and their families in Latin America and Asia can continue being exposed to the neurotoxin, and it may still end up on food exported to this country.

FMC Corp., the manufacturer of the pesticide, told the Charleston (WV) Gazette’s top gun reporter Ken Ward that the ban imposed Monday by the EPA “won’t affect production of the pesticide at the Institute’s chemical plant because most of the product is shipped overseas.”

Food safety activists denounce what they call a double standard for safety.

“The continued export of a pesticide determined too hazardous to be used in the US (shows a) hideous disrespect for millions of people and the environment around the world,” Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America, told me today.

“There is simply no reason to continue its use and many reasons to ban its use altogether.”

photo-jsass

Senior Scientist Jen Sass

It was three years ago, after years of bickering among EPA pesticide experts, public health activists and the chemical manufacturers that the agency finally said publicly that the use of the pesticide must be ended.

EPA said it was beyond dispute that significant dietary, environmental and farm worker risks existed from exposure to carbofuran.

Dr. Jennifer Sass, chief scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that initial word from EPA was that although uses of the pesticide in the U.S. would be cancelled, it would still be allowed as a contaminant on imported coffee, sugarcane, rice and bananas.

This, Sass said, would have meant that the manufacturer could still sell carbofuran in other countries that grow these foods for U.S. markets, thus putting at much greater risk those foreign workers, their families and their environment.

But apparently the restrictions issued by EPA on Monday also slash the amount of carbofuran residue limits (tolerances) permitted on all food imports.
“EPA’s decision will prevent all food contamination, including imports,” Sass said on her well-read blog.

However, the company is not going to sit quietly and allow this to happen.

FMC Corporation strongly disagrees with the EPA’s announcement to revoke all U.S. food tolerances for carbofuran, and the company plans to file objections to the agency’s actions and seek an administrative hearing, said Dr. Michael Morelli, Director of Global Regulatory Affairs for the company, on FMC’s website.

“President Obama has committed EPA to regulate on the basis of sound science, and FMC is confident that a fair hearing based on sound scientific principles will prove carbofuran’s safety to the satisfaction of all,” Morelli said.

If you care about the technical language, here is a link to EPA’s cancellation notice.

May 13, 2009

Law enforcement and food inspectors say they’re closely watching the success of new tests that may keep bogus honey off store shelves.

Illegal honey laundering may become a lot more difficult because French scientists from the Université de Lyon have developed and tested a simple method that can distinguish pure, natural honeys from adulterated or impure versions that they say are increasingly showing up on store shelves.

The study by Bernard Herbreteau and his colleagues in Lyon, France was released this week in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

(c) Photo by a. schneider

(c) Photo by a. schneider

“The high price, limited supply and complexity of honey combine to encourage falsification,” the scientists wrote. “Indeed, despite the technological advent of modern analytical instruments, there is still a problem with the adulteration of high-carbohydrate foods, such as honey, with inexpensive syrups.”

In the U.S., there are four major civilian labs and one government facility that claim the ability to identify adulterated honey.

Yet, when it comes to proving where the honey actually came from, criminal investigators, some U.S. regulators and a only a few of the largest domestic honey sellers send samples to a German lab. The lab says it’s the only place that can identify the precise country of origin of a honey.

Mostly, this analysis is needed to identify falsely labeled Chinese honey, which is smuggled into the U.S. after first being sent to other countries. The Chinese honey often contains illegal antibiotics, according to government authorities.

Criminal investigators from the FDA and Customs and Border Protection (that I interviewed last year) told me they were waiting for verification of the French test.

They hoped it would be faster, less expensive and more consistent and reliable than the laboratory analysis now available in the U.S.

Herbreteau and colleagues say their highly sensitive test uses a special type of chromatography to separate and identify complex sugars on their characteristic chemical fingerprints.

The most common syrups used to adulterate honey are corn syrups and high fructose corn syrup.

“Honey adulteration has evolved from the basic addition of sugar and water to specially produced syrups from which the chemical composition approximately reproduces the sugar composition and ratios of natural honey,” scientists wrote.

Here is a link if you want to see the actual study,

Links to investigative series on honey laundering by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer can be found on this website on the page called “previous investigations.”

May 11, 2009

Honey laundering thrives despite fed crackdown on two operations smuggling tainted Chinese honey into the U.S. What’s on grocery shelves?

Federal invesHoney Chinatigators 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.

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago.  (c) Photot by a. schneider

A Customs and Border Patrol agent in a Tacoma, Wash. warehouse draws samples of Chinese honey that is being shipped to Chicago. (c) Photo by a. schneider

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.

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