WASHINGTON, June 11, 2010 — U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) announced today that just two days after he called on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to crack down on “honey launderers” that are undermining U.S. honey producers, the agency has revealed a major enforcement action against Chinese honey smugglers. Last night, the FDA announced it has seized 64 drums-—or, $32,000 worth-—of imported Chinese honey that was contaminated with a potent antibiotic. If allowed into the marketplace, the honey would have been severely detrimental to public health and put countless lives at risk.
In response to the incident, Schumer praised the FDA for taking a big enforcement step, but also called for a larger sweep of honey shipments entering the U.S. He said such an effort would almost certainly expose additional acts of illegal smuggling of contaminated honey.
“The fact that the FDA was able to move this quickly shows that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to honey laundering. We urge the FDA to do a large-scale sweep of similar shipments from China because we are sure they will find many more illegal batches of smuggled honey,” Schumer said.
The seizure of the contaminated honey occurred at a Philadelphia distribution center. It was imported by California-based Sweet Works Inc. from Cheng Du Wai Yuan Bee Products Company Limited of China.
FDA testing of the seized product showed that it contained the potent antibiotic chloramphenicol, which is not approved for use in food, animal feed, or food-producing animals in the United States. Antibiotics may show up in honey when beekeepers feed them to their bees. Chinese bee keepers are known to feed chloramphenicol to their bees to control certain bee diseases such as foulbrood, a bacterium that infests the mid-gut of an infected bee larva.
New York’s honey industry is one of the nation’s largest, ranking 12th in total production in 2009 and serving as the Northeast’s largest beekeeping state. Just last year, New York’s honey producers manufactured over 3 million pounds of honey and racked up $5.3 million in sales, all while employing thousands. Despite the fact that New York has a robust honey industry, it is has been severely strained over recent years as cheap honey from China has flooded the U.S. market. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps track of total sales from the honey industry and in the last year that final sales figures are available (2003-2007) show a 36.4% decline, which coincides with China’s ‘honey laundering’ scheme to circumvent the duty. Also honey laundered from China may contain dangerous antibiotics like the potent ones discovered in last night’s raid. Honey with such contaminants could severely endanger public health and endanger lives.
On Wednesday, Schumer sent a letter to the FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg calling for the establishment of “pure honey” standard of identify. It would give federal agents much greater authority to crack down on adulteration, misbranding, and fraudulent mislabeling.
U.S. honey producers first petitioned the FDA to set a federal standard for honey in March 2006. The request has gone nowhere. In response to written questions submitted after a June 2009 hearing in the House, Hamburg promised to finally act on the request by the end of the year. Exactly one year later, the FDA has set other federal standards—including one for olive oil—but has still not defined what constitutes pure honey. Meanwhile, individual states have begun acting on their own. In 2009, Florida became the first. Wisconsin did the same earlier this year. Other states, including California, are considering similar laws.
But this creates an unwelcome situation where honey growers face a patchwork of differing standards across the 50 states. Schumer said it was far preferable for the FDA to issue one national standard. Food standards like the one Schumer is proposing for honey are used to ensure that products sold under particular names have the characteristics expected by consumers. The FDA has established over 280 food standards of identity, for everything from parmesan cheese and grape jelly, to milk chocolate and maple syrup. FDA food standards provide label declaration of ingredients used in the food. Products that do not conform to the FDA standard may not be labeled or sold as the standardized food.
Schumer also said that he would be working with the U.S. honey industry to prepare legislation that would give Customs greater authority to crack down on “honey laundering” through other countries. His legislation would make it harder to set up shell corporations and provide more resources to Customs and the FDA to crack down on these scammers.
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