People love to ask questions when they find out that we started keeping bees. One of the most common questions is, “When will you start selling honey?” That question is usually followed by the comment, “Local honey is really expensive. You can make a lot of money.” In our part of the Midwest, local honey sells for anywhere between $8 and $12 for a 1 pound bottle, and those prices are typically set by hobby beekeepers who sell mostly at places like farmers markets. If you read my previous blog post, you will know that hobby beekeepers aren’t getting rich on their honey. The question that people should be asking is, “Why is the grocery store honey so cheap?” The answer to that question will probably shock you.
Honey consumption in the United States has increased, and we are now the largest consumer of honey in the world. US domestic honey supply is not adequate to meet domestic demand. One would expect that this shortage of domestic supply would lead higher domestic honey prices, but unfortunately for US beekeepers that’s not the case. According to the International Honey Market Report in this month’s American Bee Journal (1), US honey production is down for the first half of 2018, but the honey prices are also about 10% lower. If you studied economics, you may remember the law of supply and demand. If the demand is rising and the production is lower, the prices should be higher. Why aren’t they? The reason is that the US imports millions of tons of honey every year, and cheap imports are depressing prices and putting even more pressure on US beekeepers who are already contending with varroa mites, small hive beetles, and loss of bee habitat. Life has gotten so tough on the honey bee that US beekeepers are now losing nearly half of their colonies each winter.
How are countries like China able to produce so much cheap honey? Are their bees hardier and more productive than their US counterparts? One reason honey can be imported so cheaply is that much of it is adulterated, and this adulterated honey is making its way into grocery stores. A recent investigation in Australia found that 12 out of 28 jars of Australian honey tested actually contained adulterated honey from China. The Economist reports that honey is now the third most adulterated food product behind milk and olive oil. (2)
Honey can be adulterated in 3 different ways. The first is to add sweeteners like rice syrup to the honey. Honey is currently tested using a stable carbon isotope ratio analysis, and this test can detect if honey has been adulterated with sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar. The test is known as the C4 test. Honey exporters have found other sweeteners that can’t be detected by the C4 test. With a quick Google search, you can find a link that will allow you to order fructose syrup for honey that will pass the C4 test. A more sophisticated test called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Analysis (NMR) can detect additives in adulterated honey, but the testing equipment is expensive and not as prevalent in food testing laboratories. (A future blog post will provide an in-depth analysis of honey testing.) Another way to adulterate honey is to take honey that is contaminated with pesticides, antibiotic residues, or pollen from a foreign country filter it and sell it. Honey containing antibiotic residues can be dangerous to people who may have allergic reactions. Finally, unscrupulous honey producers may extract honey before the bees finish their honey making process. Bees will fill the cells of the comb with honey, and then they beat their wings to dry the honey. Once the honey has aged and has the proper moisture content, the bees cap the honey with wax. To increase production, some producers may extract honey before it has been dried and capped. They remove the excess water from the honey in a production facility.
Why should you care about honey fraud? If the stuff you are putting on your toast still tastes good, isn’t that sufficient? Honey fraud is depressing honey prices making it difficult for professional beekeepers to stay in business. The country needs beekeepers because bee hives are rented to pollinate other important agriculture crops. Our local bee supplier has hives in Mississippi pollinating blueberry fields before they return home to Kentucky in the spring. California’s 1 million acres of almond trees need thousands of beehives each spring to produce the subsequent almond harvest. Adulterated honey may also lead to adverse health events, especially if the adulterated honey contains antibiotic residues. Finally, adulterated honey causes consumers to pay for something that they aren’t actually receiving. If you pay for a product labeled as 100% pure honey, then what’s in the bottle should match the label claim. A series of food related documentaries entitled “Rotten” is now available on Netflix. The first episode is entitled, “Lawyers, Guns, and Honey,” and it describes in detail the problem of honey fraud and the impact that this has on US honey producers.
Americans may also need to do a bit of soul searching about the role in which our actions play in consumer fraud. Our rampant consumerism and desire to buy cheap products of inferior quantity provides ample opportunities for unscrupulous suppliers to commit fraud. There is money to be made by the bad actors willing to take the risk. What is a person to do? My suggestion is to buy local as much as possible. The 1 lb jar of local honey for $10 that you see at the farmers market doesn’t seem so expensive now does it?
- Ron Phipps, “International Honey Market Report,” American Bee Journal, Nov. 2018, Vol. 158, No. 11.
- “The scourge of honey fraud,” The Economist, Aug. 20, 2018.