Corn syrup, antibiotics may taint U.S. honey supply as bees decline

Bee amid flowersIs there anything better than freshly baked, buttered bread spread with orange blossom honey? You may think you know, but there's a chance you've never even tasted the real deal, thanks to shysters creating fake honey using corn syrup and other additives that sell it as the real thing.

Real honey is just that -- honey without additives. It's a pure product that varies widely in color and taste depending on what the bees have been consuming, from eucalyptus in Australia to lavender in Spain to sourwood in the U.S. However, there is no federal definition of pure honey for the product that ends up on the store shelf or farmer's market table.

There are as many as 200,000 hobbyist beekeepers in the U.S. and about 1,600 commercial operations. The result is that hobbyists and part-timers turn out about 40% of the nation's honey crop, often retailed by growers at farm markets. Their efforts are not enough to meet our national sweet tooth, though, so most of the table honey sold in the U.S. comes from abroad -- more than 200 million pounds of it from China and nearby countries in 2009.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons. As reported earlier in WalletPop, the government recently seized 64 drums of this imported honey which contained antibiotics not allowed in food in this country. China has also long been accused of dumping honey below production cost into the American market, and in response is charged a special extra tariff on honey imported into the U.S. Many believe that much of the honey currently imported from other far-eastern countries including Vietnam actually comes from China, rerouted in order to beat honey tariffs.

In order to safeguard the purity of honey, some states have now stepped forward to take up the slack. Florida, North Carolina, California and Wisconsin have established criteria mandating that honey should be just that; 100% honey, not mixed with corn syrup or the like.

Beekeepers are also buzzing about the growing marketing of honey-flavored syrups carrying accurate labels, but in containers we associate with real honey. These products, which bear a similar relationship that maple-flavored syrups do to maple syrup, can undersell the real thing. Unfortunately, real honey has been rising in price as hives are killed off by colony collapse disorder.

How can a consumer protect himself from ersatz honey? The National Honey Board told WalletPop it "recommends those consumers review the price. If the price of a bottle of honey seems substantially lower than market price, it may not be 100% pure honey."

I also recommend finding a container of real honey from a source you can trust, and give it a taste to remind you what the real deal tastes like. That should help you recognize when you're getting a cheap imitation.

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