China Honey Latest Food Safety Worry

Honey is the latest <"">Chinese food import to raise safety worries in the United States, reports the San Francisco Gate.  According to the report, the United States has imported the majority of its honey from China for years, despite concerns that it might be contaminated with a dangerous antibiotic.

Over 10 years ago, in 1997, a contagious bacterial epidemic infected bee larvae in hundreds of thousands of Chinese hives, resulting in the majority of that country’s honey production being cut by two-thirds, said the SF Gate.  The report explains that while Chinese beekeepers could have destroyed the infected hives, they, instead, applied a dangerous, extremely toxic, banned antibiotic.  According to Michael Burkett, professor emeritus at Oregon State University and an international bee and honey expert, this was the wrong choice, “You hear about people shooting themselves in the foot?  Well, the Chinese honey-sellers shot themselves in the head,” he told the SF Gate.

The problem is that China used a cheap, broad-spectrum antibiotic called chloramphenicol, to treat its hives; chloramphenicol is considered so toxic it is only used in the most serious of infectious cases in humans and only when all other alternatives have been exhausted, said the SF Gate.  “That’s on the big no-no list,” Burkett said, adding that, “In the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, chloramphenicol is on everyone’s zero-tolerance list.”  Regardless, the Chinese chose to dose its hives with the dangerous drug and now, those honey buyers who test for it, find the banned antibiotic in the imported honey, said the SF Gate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says tainted Chinese honey is high on its watch list.  According to the SF Gate report, the FDA considers a food adulterated if it contains an animal drug deemed unsafe for unapproved uses.  Chloramphenicol is such a drug and is illegal in food-producing animals, including bees, in the U.S.

In 2005, China’s Ministry of Agriculture banned the drug in food production; however, it seems that Chinese beekeepers are violating the ban, said the SF Gate. It is impossible to determine safe residue levels for the toxic drug,  Steve Roach, public health director of Keep Antibiotics Working, told SF Gate.  “If the Chinese authorities are unable to keep this drug from being used, then no imports of honey from China should be allowed,” he said..  The FDA says chloramphenicol has been linked to aplastic anemia, a serious blood disorder, said SF Gate.

Meanwhile, Seattle PI wrote about its investigation into the growing trend in honey trafficking.  Because U.S. bee colonies are dying off, import demand has increased, with traders looking to bypass tariffs and health safeguards by diluting honey or tainting the product with pesticides and antibiotics, said Seattle PI.  China is known to “transship,” or launder the honey in other countries to avoid U.S. import fees and tariffs on imports that intentionally lowball domestic prices.  Seattle PI noted that honey from China comes to the U.S. as being falsely labeled as tariff-free from Russia, or from countries that have small bee populations or no known export production.  According to Seattle PI, only a small fraction of honey imported into the U.S. is inspected and the U.S, government has not legally defined honey, posing challenges for enforcement agents working to keep tainted honey out of the country.

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