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Honey Fraud: Pollen is Removed from 75 Percent of Honey Sold Commercially in US

Feb 27, 2014 10:13 AM EST

University of Texas A&M bee experts made a not-so-sweet discovery, finding that pollen is being removed from most of the commercially available honey sold in the US.

Pollen is granular, and honey producers often remove it before shipping their honey off for sale because doing so can produce a clearer, more consistent product. However, by removing pollen from honey, it makes the product's origins untraceable, and opens the doors to honey fraud, the researchers report.

After testing honey sold at US farmers markets, big box grocery stores, drug stores and natural food stores, Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M and a melissopalynologist - someone who studies the pollen in honey - and his colleagues found that 75 percent of the honey they tested had the pollen removed.

"Large importing companies take all the pollen out of honey because they claim it makes the honey clearer and prevents crystallization, therefore making it easier to sell," Bryant said in a statement. "However, by removing the pollen, you also remove clues needed to verify where the honey was produced and what nectar sources are dominant. This means that with no traces of pollen, honey sellers can take cheap honey and claim it's a type that sells for a premium price."

As locally sourced, artisan foodstuffs gain more of a following, a craft honey market has opened up, with prices for a jar of premium honey reaching as much as $50, the researchers said.

Because the US Food and Drug Administration does not require pollen to be in honey sold in the US, importers are free to remove it, Bryant said.

"This makes it possible for some companies to buy cheap honey with no pollen and there are no clues to know where it comes from," he said.

Bryant has put his support behind US Senate bill S-662, a customs re-authorization bill that, if passed, would require the federal government to ensure the origin of imported honey and enforce more accurate product labeling.

"If this bill is passed, it would require sellers to be accurate in terms of what they put on honey labels," Bryant said. "There is no law now that requires that type of 'truth in labeling' for honey. This new Senate bill would ensure that consumers get what they're paying for and it will help the honest beekeepers sell their honey."

Honey fraud, especially with honey that originated in China, is a big problem, Bryant explained.

"China is the world's leading producer of honey," he said. "They need to export a lot of it and in the past they were accused of 'dumping' their excess honey on the market at prices below the world price. This was hurting the US beekeeping industry, so the US put a high tariff on Chinese honey. After that, Chinese honey was too expensive to import, so one solution was to sell it to other countries. Some of those other countries then resold the Chinese honey to the US claiming the honey was produced in the second country. This is called 'transshipping' and it is illegal and has been a big problem."

Ensuring the legitimacy of honey has far-reaching consequences, Bryant added, noting that US beekeepers need to be protected from being priced out of competition, which would be devastating for domestic crops.

"Without them and without the bees they raise, many of our food crops would not get pollinated and produce the fruits and nuts we consume.

"If beekeeping becomes a money-losing business in the US, there will soon be fewer bees and hives," Bryant said. "That, in turn, will greatly increase the cost of food. The result might be oranges or apples, both pollinated by bees, costing $5 each because so few are produced without adequate pollination."

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