As we move further away from our food’s point of production, it becomes increasingly easy to dupe us with everything from mislabeled fish (can you really tell the difference between Atlantic cod and grouper?) and unlabeled GMO sweet corn to honey that isn’t technically honey at all.
Food Safety News recently tested over 60 containers of honey (in jugs, jars, and plastic bears) in 10 states and Washington D.C., and discovered that three-quarters of the honey didn’t contain any pollen. Brands that were found to be pollen-less include CVS Honey, Safeway Honey, Busy Bee Organic Honey, and Wegman Clover Honey.
The problem is, when honey is ultra-filtered to remove pollen—a process that Food Safety News describes as "a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen"—it becomes nearly impossible to determine its origin.
Ultra-filtering isn’t a problem in and of itself; it’s what creates that clear honey most Americans like to see in the supermarket. Processing also allows honey to stay on store shelves for longer. But tainted honey is a problem, and without clearly identifiable markers (like pollen), it’s difficult to track down.
Hannah Nordhaus documents the problem in the Beekeeper’s Lament: After a disease swept through Chinese apiaries in 1997, beekeepers started using chloramphenicol (an antibiotic linked to the deadly blood disorder aplastic anemia in humans) and other potentially harmful antibiotics on their hives. In 2002, the FDA banned Chinese honey imports after discovering chloramphenicol in honey products.
The ban didn’t quite work, however—China simply started shipping its honey products to other countries before sending them on to their final destinations in the U.S., foiling inspectors (the ban was later lifted, but China continues to transship honey in order to avoid U.S "antidumping" tariffs). As Food Safety News explains in an investigation from earlier this year, China uses all sorts of tricks—painting the drums that honey is shipped in different colors (if inspectors discover all drums from China are green, suppliers might switch the color to blue), creating fake paperwork, and even repacking honey and generating authentic documents in other countries prior to shipping to the U.S.
Nordhaus explains: "There are limited personnel to pursue honey-laundering cases and there are bigger fish to fry, so large amounts of adulterated or contaminated honey still make it through the customs gauntlet. Suppliers suspect that 50 percent or more of all imported honey has been transshipped from China through another country."
Pollen is the only reliable way to identify honey’s origins. According to the European Union Directive on Honey, "The removal of pollen will make the determination of botanical and geographic origin of honey impossible and circumvents the ability to trace and identify the actual source of the honey."
By matching pollen to flowers from different geographic regions, scientists can pinpoint where the bees behind the honey spent their days roaming. Beyond that, removing pollen also removes some of honey’s purported medicinal properties, including protein, nutrients, and antioxidants. Unfortunately, there are only a few labs around the world that can do the pollen testing necessary for pinpointing honey’s point of origin.
It’s up to the government, though, to crack down on ultra-filtered honey. And that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.
There are still some reliable places to look for unadulterated honey. Every sample tested by Food Safety News that came from co-ops, farmers markets, and "natural" stores (i.e. Trader Joe’s) contained a full amount of pollen. And if you’re lucky enough to live near a farmer’s market, you can probably hunt down a local supplier.