Honey is not an item one thinks about very often unless you are fermenting a tasty mead or like to use the natural sweetener (gag) on your morning toast. But there are lessons to be learned from honey: the effects of tariffs and as a parallel to the drug war.
Americans apparently love their bee squeezings, consuming a yearly average of 1.3 pounds per person for nearly 400 million pounds in total. Since demand is so high, U.S beekeepers can only supply forty-eight percent of this amount, with forty-one other countries making up the rest. But honey, like so many other market products, is controlled (to some degree as we are about to find out), and foreign imports are, in theory, kept in check by tariffs. Chinese honey, in particular, has been targeted since the year 2001 with a stiff tariff, tripling the import duty to $2.63 per net kilogram. This was enacted because American producers complained that the Chinese were undercutting “fair market” prices (whatever those are!), making it difficult for domestic beekeepers to compete.
Since the tariff on Chinese honey, to no one’s surprise, the imports from other countries suddenly spiked, as Chinese producers found other means to move their product. Honey Laundering, as it is called, happens by shipping the product from China to a neutral port, changing the country of origin, and then sending the barrels onward to the United States. Recent estimates say that a third of the honey consumed here comes from such illegal sources. And because of filtration methods, the pollen – used to determine the country of origin – can be scrubbed clean, creating an untraceable product. Some Chinese producers also create fake honey – make from artificial sweeteners and mixed with other liquids to look like the real thing.
China, as to be expected, views the tariff as a protectionist measure. The domestic producers counter that Asian honey has antibiotics and the presence of lead; also the tariff not only protects American beekeepers but is an important health issue. For example, in India, honey tested for export in 2010 found lead and antibiotics in twenty-three percent of the samples. These samples were assumed to have come from Chinese sources, relabeled as Indian production.
Over the past few years, there have been indictments and arrests for honey laundering, spanning several countries. There are federal agencies at work here, too: the Department of Justice, ICE, and the FDA, busy busting illegal importers but only making a minor dent in the flow of illegal honey. Honey laundering continues, and will continue as long as there are incentives to do so.
Sources: various articles found online (take that!).