How dirty honey made its way to the U.S.

Honey Bees that produce raw Wildflower honey work in their hive at a outdoor Farmer's Market August 15, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

When you think of things being smuggled from China, most people would assume it was something to do with drugs, or perhaps counterfeit electronics.

But honey?

Susan Berfield wrote about the scheme in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

ALW, a German food company, was able to successfully smuggle Chinese honey into the U.S.

"This is the biggest case of food fraud in U.S history,” Berfield says. “Chinese honey [was] smuggled into the U.S. to avoid very high tariffs, and made its way into our food chain."

Though the honey industry may not seem like the best target to make a quick buck, the U.S. is actually the biggest consumer of honey in the world. Americans use “400 million pounds of honey a year,” Berfield says.  “A lot of that is imported, and about half of it goes into the food system, meaning food companies use it in cereals, bread, other kind of processed food, so not necessarily the honey on the table.”

How was ALW able to get past security?

'There's very little inspection that goes on in the ports and other places where food comes in. The government doesn’t have the resources to monitor that,” Berfield says. “They do have to rely on tips, and in this case it was the U.S. honey producers that tipped them off and said that, 'We've seen this honey being sold, we know it's being sold by this company, you should look into it.'”

Though ALW was only caught with counterfeit honey, Berfield notes it does raise questions about food safety. “Worldwide, the counterfeit food industry is about $49 billion. Even more significant I think is what it suggests,” Berfield says. “Honey is one ingredient. We know there’s been cases of diluted olive oil, other things that aren't health threats, but suggests that there are openings and vulnerabilities that are very very hard to keep track of.”

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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