Addressing Honey Fraud in Global Food Chains

Though LeaderGillian WadePeter AwramHoney fraud is a longstanding and deeply rooted problem that is widely recognized as having a direct correlation to the survival of beekeepers. Honey fraud is also a very real threat to worldwide food supplies, as beekeepers fulfill the important role of supporting pollinators which are vital in the maintenance of global food chains.
In this interview, Peter Awram is an expert from the Worker Bee Honey Company, the largest apiary in British Columbia, Canada, and Gillian Wade, an expert in consumer class action litigation, discuss the issues facing honey producers.

For both speakers: Can you introduce yourself and provide a bit about your background?

Peter Awram: I am a second-generation beekeeper, and my dad started way back in the 1950s. I started as a kid and have been beekeeping quite a bit since then. I did take a break off to go to university and ended up with a Ph.D. in science and some postdoctoral work.

Then I came back to the family business and had been beekeeping pretty heavily since then. We are a typical North American operation, which is migratory and does a mixture of pollination and honey production.

Gillian Wade: I am a plaintiff's lawyer in Los Angeles, California. I have a particular emphasis on consumer fraud class actions. I lead a consumer fraud department at my law firm, and I have done pretty extensive work in food fraud litigation. It developed naturally over time.

Gillian, how did you originally come across honey fraud and honey adulteration as an issue through your work? Can you talk about how it has become such a big part of what you do?

Gillian Wade: Consumer fraud comes in many different shapes and sizes, and forms. Over the 17 years, I have been doing plaintiff-side consumer fraud litigation, I have seen there is a lot of fraud in the food industry. That ultimately led me to Professor Michael Roberts, who is the Executive Director of the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy at UCLA.

Through that affiliation, I am on the outside advisory board, which is comprised of food industry leaders really from all different backgrounds. There are even some people on the board who I have sued before. Michael Roberts has been looking at this issue for many years about honey fraud.

The reason I was so drawn to it is because there is a direct correlation between honey fraud, the survival of beekeepers, and our food supply. If this continues down the path it is on, we will have nothing to eat. That was all from Michael Roberts introducing me to this problem and introducing me to some beekeepers and what they are experiencing.

honeybee

Image Credit: Egeris/Shutterstock.com

How has honey fraud come to be such a big problem?

Peter Awram: It is a complicated issue, and this extent of the problem is unbelievable. I had heard about honey fraud all my life, but I had not looked into it until it came to my attention through a talk by Norberto Garcia.

He had done a lot of work on looking at how exports had changed throughout time there. About 12 years ago, they had started increasing substantially.

It is likely to have started closer to the turn of the century here. Around the 2000 to 2003 mark, China suddenly started exporting a lot of honey to the US and these products were caught with a lot of antibiotics in them. This honey was because this antibiotic was causing problems in people.

China has a huge amount of honey on hand because they are the biggest producer. Thus, they were trying to get rid of it and started finding methods that allowed them to get around.

Suddenly, countries that were never producing honey exporting huge amounts to the US because they were moving honey out of China into places like Vietnam or India. These exports had contamination problems, so countries started developing huge resin filtering factories.

As a result, there was a huge increase in prices in the US and Canada for honey, incentivizing the development of these methods.

At the same time, high fructose corn syrup was becoming big in the US, and the same method for producing high fructose corn syrup also works with rice. China has a big supply of rice and with it can produce high fructose rice syrup.

Honey is not complicated food to fake, and high fructose syrup resembles honey in a lot of ways. Around 2008, they have been allowed to develop all these methods that worked really well in honey fraud.

Over time, we saw a degradation of retail honey on the shelves, particularly in the US. Generally, the US and Canada produce light-colored honey. On the shelves, honey color has gotten much darker and that is because of the imports being brought in by packers in the US to keep prices low.

What consequences have you observed over the last ten years and what effect have they had on your business?

Peter Awram: Around 2003, there was a really high price and around that 2008 to 2010 mark, the price dropped about two and a half times on the Canadian side of the market.

Generally, there has been a huge fluctuation in price and it has made beekeeping a really frustrating business because you don't know how much you are going to get for that honey that you produce.

The costs of beekeeping have increased considerably over time. We have not seen the prices that were in the early 2000s at all. Almost 20 years later, the price has decreased while costs likely doubled during the same period.

This has resulted in a considerable decrease in the number of commercial beekeepers in Canada. An aging population, beekeepers, were coming to retirement age, and they retire, and the business ends at that point.

Very few people are working as beekeepers because the cost to get into beekeeping right now is significant, and the returns are not good enough to get bank loans. In general, there is a decrease in the number of beekeepers that are out there.

You have no control over the price as a beekeeper. When beekeepers have huge expenses at the end of the season, the buyers come and offer really low prices.

Beekeepers are put in a situation where they are forced to either take it so they can afford to pay off all these expenses they incurred, or they are out of luck.

Buyers put a lot of pressure on the beekeepers to accept low prices because they have this other source of so-called ‘honey’ they can grab if beekeepers reject their price.

Gillian Wade: The reality of the situation for beekeepers is that it is not economically feasible for them to survive. Because of imported fake honey, the price of honey is controlled by the packers who are mixing real honey with fake honey.

They set the price because no one can compete with these prices. Beekeepers in the United States are sitting on millions of pounds of real honey they cannot sell because the market is flooded with fake honey.

The beekeepers need the packers to sell it to the retailers, but the packers are buying less beekeeper honey at lower prices because they are mixing it with the fake honey.

Between 2018 and 2019, 40% of the hives in the United States were gone because of colony collapse, which is related to honey fraud. There are fewer and fewer bees because they are dying all over the world.

We have beekeepers who are keeping hives, and their production should be up. Normal economics would show that when demand is up, which it is, and supply is down, that prices would go up, and the opposite has happened.

In Canada, there is overproduction. Canadians do not consume all of the honey that they make. The extra is exported to the United States. Their prices are down too. Like Peter was explaining, it is all because of the fraud and its epicenter in the US.

The fact that this has gone on for as long as it has is so alarming to me because everybody knows. The most troubling thing about this is that the retailers know and they could stop buying fake honey, and then the packers would not be able to do this to the beekeepers.

When they are all in this together, the beekeepers do not stand a chance, and we are not going to be able to survive if it continues down this path.

What are some of the legal checks that are supposed to be in place to stop fraud from happening and why haven’t they worked in this case?

Gillian Wade: Regulatory bodies include the USDA and FDA. The USDA does not have certain powers in these circumstances and the responsibility of checks mainly falls to the FDA. The FDA, however, does not address food issues unless there is a health safety crisis currently happening.

They do not have the resources and therefore do not enforce the legal checks on honey fraud. Historically, the FDA has been notified of the problem and they have the power to detain or reject imported products. However, they are not testing the product when it arrives.

There are no existing checks and balances. Even though the FDA has a definition of what honey is supposed to be, there is no enforcement mechanism for labeling, which leads us to rely on private enforcement or lawsuits.

Lawsuits have their limits as well. Consumer Fraud in the United States is really focused in certain states because there is no federal cause of action for consumer fraud. Each state in the union has its own consumer protection type statutes or laws.

Because when we're dealing with products like honey where prices are down, and sales are up with retails for between $4 and $10, the average honey price would be in that range.

As a consumer, what you can get back would be the difference between what you paid for the product you purchased and what you actually received.

This gets really complicated because a smart defendant will always argue that there is some value to what you purchased because it had some honey in it. It also gets really complicated to calculate damages for each individual.

That limits people to four or five states that have a private right of action where this would become a decent consumer protection case. Are the cases worthwhile? Yes. Are we going to see more of them? Yes. Is it going to stop the conduct? I do not know.

This fraud runs deep, a deeply rooted problem that has been around for a long time, and a lot of people are making a lot of money perpetuating this fraud. In order to get this to stop, it needs to be looked at through a different lens and addressed in a different way.

When I do the analysis, when your damages are low, the defense will argue you have got to prove that every single bottle of honey for that manufacturer is not real. There are different ways that you can demonstrate that, but it is very expensive to do it.

For example, you spend a million dollars on a Ph.D. economist to calculate it and they tell you your damages are $200,000.

There are a lot of factors to consider that make a consumer case tricky. In terms of self-regulation, industry groups and trade groups have the same people perpetuating the fraud in leadership roles like sitting on boards recommending different forms of testing and suggesting what should be done.

Those same people are the ones importing the fake honey who do not want more rigorous testing and are controlling all of this. This is where the problem lies.

honeycomb

Image Credit: Marek Svec/Shutterstock.com

Are there any other inhibitors to the fight against fraud in the honey beekeeping industry?

Peter Awram: There is also the issue of beekeepers being a tiny industry. That alone inhibits the ability to fight against this fraud that much because those profiting are powerful. Yet, the influence of bees is substantial.

The entire almond industry in the US would disappear if there were no bees in the US. The entire population of hives in the US goes to California for almond production. This is because the number of hives has dropped so dramatically.

It is about a third of what it was about 60 years ago, and you see this trend in Canada as well.

The testing methods are not adequately addressing this. The labeling regulations are lacking and inappropriate for what we are seeing. It is often not clear where your honey originated from. There has been a commoditization that favors the people who are bringing in the fake honey.

Consumers, in general, do want to support local producers, but this designation is often not clear on the labels or product presentations.

Can you talk about how that differs from the kind of tests that are the current standards in the industry? What kind of resistance have you seen to that new method, and is there a path forward for it becoming a sort of new standard?

Peter Awram: Most of these older methods are very limited. When identifying a specific compound, you can remove it if it is an artifact from adding a syrup. That is how resin columns originated, used to remove artifacts that shouldn’t be in the honey. Some examples include rice syrup and arsenic.

On the other hand, with NMR spectroscopy, researchers and producers can start putting things in honey that needs to be in it. Examples include enzymes like prolene or diastase.

With magnetic resonance, you are looking at the whole thing. It is a bit like a DNA fingerprint with a huge amount of information. It is more difficult for somebody to fake that because magnetic resonance sees so much more.

The other advantage of magnetic resonance is it depends on the database. You start getting an actual picture of what honey truly is. If you have a database of authentic honey, suddenly, you have the ability to describe it better.

With these resin filtered, you have all these portions of the honey that are basically non-existent. It is no longer honey, just another form of syrup. The big advantage of magnetic resonance is the ability to look at the entire composition, a complex mixture of unique components.

The other advantage is the movement away from the commoditization of honey. Honey is like wine, originating from different kinds of flowers to produce different types of honey. In wine, you have a specific grape that gives you a specific flavor.

This is what allowed fraud to persist because there is no distinction between honey on the shelves. We also have the ability to look at the country of origin or geographic region. With our own product, we can tell the difference between blueberry honey that is produced on the west coast versus on the east coast of Canada.

All these can be used as selling points, just as they are in the wine industry. Honey is not just a sweetener, and marketing it as a sweetener has been a big disservice. Without that distinguishing ability there, honey can never compete on price to something like basic white cane sugar.

We need to move away from that commoditization because it benefits those importing fake honey.

Is there a route there that looks promising in emphasizing the premium nature of honey as a product and differentiating it from its image as a sweetener?

Gillian Wade: We have all sorts of honey on the market, all labeled as labeled honey, and they are not honey. Improving labeling would be a good route. There are some products that say honey syrup which I have actually bought before and not realized that is what I purchased.

I think some stores, specialty markets, and farmer’s markets carry real honey, but it is priced at about $10 to $15, which is tremendously more expensive.

However, even this real honey could be mixed. For example, I have spoken to small local farmer beekeepers selling to local farmers' markets. What they tell me is they don't have enough bees and are not producing as much honey as they can actually sell at the farmers' market.

So they will go to Costco and buy a 60-pound tub of honey because it is cheap. They are mixing that with their honey that they are unknowingly putting sugar syrup into their honey.

I don’t know how to stop this at this time, especially with the way the market is so flooded with fake honey, bees that are dying, and colony collapse.

Beekeepers are looking for other methods of ways to survive, which does not involve producing authentic honey, so there is less and less real honey coming into the market. I wish NMR testing was the standard.

Has there been pushback from food industry groups regarding NMR testing to regulate honey authenticity on the market, and if so, for what reasons?

Peter Awram: Pushback from industry is a problem. They are seeing that NMR testing actually works and it has the advantage that it gets better as the database gets better. The more data we get and the more samples that we test, the better the results are going to be.

You can take this same technique of looking at a database and identifying what honey really is and can start using it with other sorts of machines.

For example, mass spectrometers are becoming much more used, and when you combine a mass spectrometer with a magnetic resonance machine, you cover everything that is in the honey. Those two machines together will be pretty much impenetrable.

The industry is going to push back because there is evidence of what is in their fake honey products. They are sending samples of varying concentrations of honey to syrup mixed into people using NMR technology to figure out how they can get past this regulatory check. It is not that easy to circumvent.

In a lot of ways, the testing companies are in a bind because the people that are supporting them are the ones trying to get fake honey on the shelves.

Is there currently a standard test for the authenticity of honey and similar food products and if so, why is it not effective?

Peter Awram: There is one kind of standard test, the AOAC 988.112, which has been enshrined in law across the world. It is considered the standard test, and it does not work because it only detects the C4 syrups ( basically corn syrup).

There has been this massive switch away from corn syrup as a result because rice syrup is readily available.

Rice syrup is undetectable by this testing method and actually cheaper than corn syrup. Companies do not mind this test being used and can point to the fact that countries have put this in law as the official test, stating their honey products have passed.

There was a big news outbreak in Australia, where the company that was accused of bringing in fraudulent honey and defended themselves, stating they had passed this standard test.

This can discredit the prosecution, despite the fact that companies know perfectly well the honey they are buying is a third the price of what they would pay if it were locally produced.

honey

Image Credit: Darios/Shutterstock.com

What is a solution to this problem of accountability in the honey industry?

Gillian Wade: We need to hold the retailers accountable because the beekeepers do not have the power, money, or choice. I have heard from beekeepers directly that when they speak up and try to do something, they get retaliated against.

The packers that are controlling the market refuse to buy their honey and will go to another source which exacerbates the problem. Beekeepers are afraid to do anything because they have even less of a chance of survival if they get blackballed, and no one will buy their honey.

There are some packing companies that are not doing this to beekeepers, but they are very small and also cannot compete. They pay more for real honey, and they have to, in turn, sell it to the retailers for more. Retailers are not going to pay more when they could pay less.

For them to turn a blind eye and say they do not know what is in their product is false. They know, and they just don't care. We are seeing in the United States retail chains saying they are going to be testing their own products for safety, that they care so much about what is going on, and then they start banning products.

For example, Costco stopped carrying a line of coconut milk and coconut water products because of a PETA investigation about monkeys being used as slave labor to acquire the coconuts.

If we are not carrying a product because of monkey slave labor, why is Costco carrying products like fake honey that is going to destroy our food supply worldwide?

If all of the bees die and the beekeepers all go out of business, we are not going to have anything to eat, and then we are all going to die. This problem needs to be addressed because if it continues to be sold, consumers are going to buy it.

How can consumers hold companies accountable for the products they sell?

Gillian Wade: People don't know about this problem, and the light at the end of the tunnel is that it is finally getting some mainstream press. I think that is going to be the start of taking these bad actors down.

The consumer needs to be made aware and to start holding the retailers accountable and not buying it. That will solve the problem but will take a Herculean effort because it is not going to be easy to overcome.

Peter Awram: A few of the efforts that have occurred, certainly in Canada, have produced results. An online petition went out objecting to the fact that they were using imported honey in their products which got a lot of news coverage and made waves.

Companies felt this in their bottom line, but their products are still on the shelves. It did make a difference and I think that is the only way that to get any sort of action. Real pressure ultimately comes from the people buying the honey, and they have to make it clear that they are not going to accept the fake product.

The problem of labeling was mentioned briefly earlier. Could you go into more detail on how this can be addressed?

Peter Awram: We need to have the labeling correctly. Honey does sell things. For example, in honey mustard sauce, the top ingredient is some sort of glucose, fructose syrup. Honey is fourth or fifth down on the line. Companies are using the label honey to sell products, but that is not what they are selling.

The token amount in products is the cheapest stuff companies could find on the market and is likely more glucose or fructose syrup which does not do anything for a beekeeper anywhere.

Gillian Wade: That is another type of labeling problem that is really difficult to address. If you talk to some of the food manufacturers, they will say they are the victim. However, it is hard for me to fathom that they do not know. Of course, they want to use the cheapest thing possible, and it is a real problem.

This is even more difficult to address from a consumer standpoint. For example, you buy a cereal that says sweetened with real honey on the front. You have to prove that it was not sweetened with real honey and then show what your damage is because of that.

So on a $3 box of cereal, you still got cereal. It just was not made with real honey, it was made with fake honey. Your damage might be four cents a box which is a really tough case.

It is actions like this that are perpetuating the problem. Consumers really do care what they're buying, eating, and putting in their bodies.

Some food manufacturers care what they are buying, but if there are no regulations and making sure that they are buying real honey, it just complicates and exacerbates the problem.

What are some legal actions to take that could help with product labeling issues?

Gillian Wade: One thing that is available under some of the state statutes, including California, as a remedy is setting aside the damages portion of it and the financial portion as we see it. We do have a way to seek injunctive relief, which would be to force proper labeling.

That may make a difference, but you have to make the same showing on liability to get that remedy because it can be tricky to get. If we can prove that what is in those bottles consistently is not honey, then one of the remedies we can seek is to force proper labeling.

If we can enforce proper labeling, then consumers will be able to see this product like honey, and this one is not.

Forcing proper labeling of products would be the function of the FDA. From that standpoint, there may not be as much incentive for the plaintiff's attorneys to seek out these cases because the financial piece is small, and we still have to pay for the litigation. This is a reality that has to be balanced here because these are not big damages cases.

These are injunctive relief cases that have real meaning, but you have to be willing to put in the resources to get that change, and you need a well-funded operation which can be a challenge.

honey

Image Credit: Alessandro Cristiano/Shutterstock.com

What are some other food products that also face authenticity issues, and can these product fraud regulations help the honey industry?

Gillian Wade: There are other product areas where that happens where there is a clear imitation product or a lower tier in the market, but it is labeled clearly, and people know what the product is. The example that occurred to me was maple syrup.

There is still fraud and people trying to pass off any old syrup as maple syrup, but there is a much better labeling in the products and a much better consumer awareness of when you are getting actual real maple syrup and when you are getting generic breakfast style syrup.

When there is a cheaper imitation product, it stands out. If you are not paying over $10 for it, then it is not maple syrup.

The same thing happens with certain other products like wines, as mentioned previously. Peter is trying to sell honey more like wine is sold. Again, it is not like there is no fraud, but consumer awareness at least is better in those areas.

Magnetic resonance can also be used to combat wine fraud and catch the passing off cheaper wine as more expensive varieties.

There is growing consumer awareness, and the tendency is towards clearer labeling as well. For example, for real olive oil, you have classifications like extra virgin olive oil, and there are certain standards that have to be met to put those labels on.

The fraud problem does not disappear, but it at least is more out in the open. Hopefully, consumers are a bit more aware of it and those consumers who do want their premium products know that they have to pay a little more for it and trust they are getting that.

How can NMR technology as a regulatory test help solve these accountability and labeling problems?

Peter Awram: NMR is a quality assurance tool where you are able to look at the entire product. The best-known case of magnetic resonance is the MRI in the hospital, which is a way to think of this technology in relation to honey.

We are imaging the honey and get a whole picture of it that we are able to use. You can look at pictures of authentic honey and see what it is supposed to look like.

The advantage of magnetic resonance as a testing method is that it is the kind of machine that you can apply to a whole series of foods or even things like supplements and other areas that are not well looked at.

In the same way that you look at the entire spectrum of compounds that are in honey, you can look at the entire spectrum that is in wine or olive oil too.

You can do the same comparing and matching of the database. With this information, you can identify where it came from and how it was produced. Those natural compounds are in there, and when they are missing, then it alerts you that something is going on that is different.

For instance, if you are having every Costco with an NMR machine in the back room, they can be testing everything that is going through their stores and really improving our whole food system.

What do you hope might happen over the next few years that might give us some light at the end of this tunnel?

Gillian Wade: I hope that this issue gets more attention and that consumers are made more aware. I think we are on that path. With more press and more lawsuits filed, I think more pressure on the retailers, which is my goal.

For example, if Walmart will not sell the product, then people will not buy it (and I'm not singling out Walmart for any particular reason except that Walmart is one of the biggest retailers in our country). If they hold the packers and people selling them the honey to a higher standard because there is public pressure to do so, then the problem will stop.

My hope is that the consumer will be demanding a real product and proper labeling, and that will result in putting an end to this.

Peter Awram: In the end, the only pressure that is going to be effective is from the consumers. It definitely is going to have to be backed up with some ways of actually identifying where the problems are. I do not see any way of doing that without technologies like magnetic resonance, where you can actually tell what you are looking at.

Consumers do not have the ability to test what is on the shelf. Certainly, there are things like taste, but in the end, consumers are at the mercy of what is on the shelf.

We need technologies like NMR to back us up and make sure. Pretty much everything should undergo some sort of testing, both at the ports when they come in, but also inside the country as well because it is possible where things can happen there too.

You can legally bring in some of these syrups into the country and then have the mixing and fraud going on inside. Testing and regulation have to happen all along the chain.

Bruker has worked in partnership with producers and experts like Peter to create this combination of robust, repeatable profiling and comprehensive statistical modeling, which could help you to ensure the authenticity of your food products.

In addition to honey, Bruker also offers food screener solutions for wines and fruit juices.

If you want to know how food screening could help you, or if you just want to learn more about the technology, then please go to bruker.com/foodscreener and reach out to Bruker experts.

About Bruker BioSpin - NMR, EPR and Imaging

Bruker BioSpin offers the world's most comprehensive range of NMR and EPR spectroscopy and preclinical research tools. Bruker BioSpin develops, manufactures and supplies technology to research establishments, commercial enterprises and multi-national corporations across countless industries and fields of expertise.


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