Honey, I shrunk the tariff!

Everybody (including us) is talking about people crossing US borders illegally, but lots of things cross borders (pollution, wildlife, pathogens). Services cross borders whenever we reach a call center in Bangladore and of course so do commodities. Commodities like foodstuffs or medicines or toys may or may not be subject to regulations for safety and many are subject to tariffs to protect domestic industries. It turns out that a lot of these commodities are also in this country "illegally." Take honey:

The tariffs were attached to the import of Chinese honey about two years ago because exporters there were "dumping" it in the U.S. - selling it at a much lower price than its cost, which is about one-half what it costs U.S. honey producers. The practice has almost ruined the market for domestic honey, says Bryant, who is also director of the palynology laboratory at Texas A&M.

China is the largest honey producer in the world. (Texas A&M press release via Science Blog [no relations to scienceblogs.com])

It turns out that a lot of honey that is labeled as coming from somewhere else is really from China. Some of it isn't even mainly honey. It is apparently common to add high fructose corn syrup as a cheap and effective adulterant. We know something about this because of one scientist at Texas A&M, Vaughn Bryant. He is probably the world's only routinely practicing mellisopalynologist, an expert on pollen in honey. Since bees make honey by picking up pollen, the origin of ingredients in a batch of honey can in principle be identified by studying the pollen remnants (unless the pollen is filtered first to remove the pollen, an increasingly common practice to avoid evidence of its origin).

Bryant has discovered that no matter the label on imported honey (Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos), there's a good chance some or most of it will be made up of Chinese honey, even if some of it comes from the alleged country of origin. I went to the TAMU site to see if I could get more information on how Bryant does this but it just reproduced the press release. It mentions the expense and difficulty of using DNA and stable isotope analysis to identify honey origins but not how Bryant does it. I looked through some of his publications and it appears he does it the old fashioned way, by morphological identification of the plants the pollen comes from, using microscopy of various kinds, although I am not sure.

Bryant is a forensic palynologist, someone who uses pollen identification techniques to provide legal evidence. Mrs. R. and I sometimes watch a TV show called "Bones," one of whose characters is an independently wealthy scientist who specializes in pinpointing the locations of crimes or types of weapons by examining "particulates" or insects or insect eggs from the body or crime scene. Pollen is sometimes involved. This character does it very, very rapidly (often in minutes) and with startling effect: "this plant is only found in a vacant lot next to a sewage treatment plant in northern Virginia," displaying the location on his computer screen. The characters are somewhat idiosyncratic and include a woman atheist forensic pathologist with an Aspergers-like personality disorder who also writes crime novels, a promiscuous bisexual computer graphic artist who performs ridiculously accurate "holographic" facial and event reconstructions in a few hours using algorithms unknown to computer science, and other assorted people, some identified as graduate students, who perform even more scientifically preposterous feats.

So far no TV miscarriages of justice involving honey. That only happens in real life.

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From the linked article:

Some foreign exporters get around the tariff by mixing honey from different sources, while others infuse up to 50 percent high fructose corn syrup into the honey, he says.

50%? That's particularly vile, with all the health concerns people have about high fructose corn syrup. People put honey in tea, on yoghurt, in baked goods, in amounts they'd never do with a bottle of high fructose corn syrup. (A beast I haven't seen yet, though it's probably only a matter of time. They'll probably come up with some happy name to put on it, Sunshine Syrup or something.) (copyright me)

If nothing else, this is a good argument for buying U.S. honey (I assume that U.S. honey producers cannot legally pull these shenanigans), or better yet, buy it from a local producer.

@caia - Frighteningly enough, I don't think it would be that difficult to sell Americans on a bottle of Sunshine Syrup. People have been using Karo for decades - all one would have to do is replace the glucose with fructose.

CPF -- You may be right. Makes a difference to their livers, but maybe not to them. And y'know, as much as I object to the marketing of HFCS as safe and natural and all the things it's not, I object more to not even putting the label on the package so people who know better can stay the heck away from it.

Mellisopalynologist - now there's a job title to conjure with!
On the food side, if people only buy two things locally (ideally directly)- milk and honey - it will have the greatest positive effect on agriculture in your area.

Fructose is already the most abundant sugar in honey. Adding HFCS doesn't change the composition by very much. Corn syrup is pretty much pure glucose, honey is more like invert sugar (produced by the action of sucrase on sucrose) which is a 50-50 mix of glucose and fructose.

There are several types of HFCS, HFCS55, HFCS42, and HFCS90 which are 55, 42 and 90% fructose respectively. HFCS42 has less fructose than does sucrose. Honey is similar to HFCS55.

Steve Novella had a good post on HFCS a while back. The fears of fructose having bad health effects are probably overblown. I think glucose is (very slightly) better for you because glucose regulation is better because the liver and muscles take it up and store it for later. I think that better regulation only comes into play after you have eaten more than is easily regulated. If you keep your fructose intake below a certain level (where the fructose is oxidized and not stored), the ratio to glucose probably doesn't matter. That level is probably 10's of percent of calorie intake.

Not so sure about buying local honey to avoid adulterants. Decades ago, we routinely saw honey and molasses adulterated with both cane sugar syrup and corn syrup (either HFCS or Karo). Turned out that some of the worst about that were the religious folk noted for living the "simple life". I guess cheating the "English" was simple.

You do know the series is very loosely based on the life of forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, who is a producer on the show. Its title character, Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, is named after Temperance Brennan, the protagonist of Reichs' crime novel series. (and so I don't get blamed of plagiarism the above words came from Wikipedia).

As far as the honey goes, we can get it locally. And whether you like Whole Foods or not they DO make a sincere effort to bring in lots of local products.

Lea: Yes, I know that. "Bones" is also the title of a book by Henry Scammell about forensic anthropologists. I believe Henry always suspected there might be a connection but the Reichs one seems solid. Mrs. R. and I enjoy the show and the characters even if it is monumentally preposterous.

I haven't seen the show, but I have read most of Kathy Reichs' books. They're certainly not scientifically preposterous, being written by a scientist, but you do have to be willing to digest the occasional two-page disquisition on (say) the sequence of insects that inhabit a decomposing body. She's also a stickler for accuracy in her locations, choosing Montreal and North Carolina, both places she has lived. On the other hand, some of her plots feel a little preposterous - how does a forensic pathologist somehow keep getting personally threatened by criminals?

Bones is indeed based on Kathy Reichs' work and her novels - Kathy Reichs is a co-producer of the show. The characters in the book are extremely different from the TV ones, but I still enjoy both. The show is considerably more scientifically ridiculous than the novels, but I so love to see sympathetic geek characters on TV.

Honey: is it really true that most American honey is produced by feeding sugar-water to the bees? It certainly seems extremely insipid compared to the eucalypt honeys that I usually eat. (Unless you buy specialties, like Tupelo.)