We all know how much the notoriety of Chinese honey has swelled over the years from the horrendous reports on honey frauds and honey laundering business in China that are pouring through the media. According to the China Bee Products Association, half of the honey sold in China is fake. Shanghai Daily (2013) reported that cheap honey sold by street vendors is virtually all fake. It is hard to differentiate the fake one and the real one as technologies for manufacturing fake honey products have become so advanced that even fake honeycomb made of gum and fake honey can pass traditional tests for flavonoid plant compounds and the oxidation index.
The story of Tara Bambrick, someone whom I bumped into virtually, would again make you think twice about buying Chinese honey. Despite having visited China a number of times, it's still quite an eye-opener for me to see Tara's picture of a Chinese beekeeper selling honey right from a red plastic pail. The fact that there are people who actually care (or dare) to buy from these beekeepers on the streets just blows my mind. Thanks, Tara for sharing with us. I love your story.
Chinese honey production, like in so many areas of commerce, is suffering from a great deal of bad press. Why? China may still be communist, but they have a capitalist love of money that is in no way new. And seldom do love of money and careful adherence to quality and safety standards go together. Send out a bad product and someone is going to notice.
Do the actions of companies that get caught reflect the actions of everyone? Likely not, but the damage has been done. I am currently living in China and worked my way through my third jar of honey produced by this country (the three of them pictured in order here). The third jar is actually made in Hunan province where I live, and it tastes the best out of the three jars I've sampled. On the truly local front, I have met a local beekeeper selling honey on the street. This site will be updated as experiences are accumulated. In the meantime, I'll outline issues and what I have learned personally below. I have a separate page that serves as a photo gallery of bees and other flying insects that I encounter here in China and other Asian countries if I get a chance to visit.
China as a Honey Producer and Exporter
Many countries buy honey in bulk from other countries. The product is bottled and then labelled as a product of the country that bottles it. It doesn't sound quite right, but it happens. As a consumer, you can buy a product with a nationalistic 'buy local' mentality, and the most local thing about it is the sales tax you pay. The reality is, if you buy honey in supermarkets, you have likely consumed Chinese honey.
One of the major beekeeping regions in China is Qinghai province in the west adjacent to Tibet. A large province, it is sparsely populated with fewer than 5 million people. It is a common place to be sent for labour reform. While thinly populated, the province has plenty of grasslands and animals and turns out high-quality sheep and yak wool in addition to honey.
Traces of Antibiotics and Honey-Laundering
Chinese honey has become synonymous with 'tainted honey' and 'honey laundering'. In the former, antibiotics such as Chloramphenicol have been discovered in trace amounts in Chinese imports.2,3 Some of these antibiotics are known to cause blood disorders, although it is unknown whether the amounts found in the honey are harmful. Further, the imported honey is low-grade and destined to be further diluted before human consumption.
In the latter issue - 'honey laundering' - to avoid paying duties that are imposed by various countries on Chinese honey, China will often route their product through other countries.4 The honey will often undergo filtering to remove traces of pollen that can identify the source of the honey, or the end product is often labelled as another substance.
Buying Honey in China
So, we know that it is easy to get Chinese honey outside of China - it is present in much of the national-brand, 'garbage' honey that you can buy everywhere. How can you buy honey in China?
In Hunan province, in the south of China, which is not a big honey-producing area, you can get honey everywhere. Even in the small town where I am, honey is available on the shelves of the supermarket and in pharmacies. Honey is considered medicinal, and you can see it by the way it is marketed through special areas within the supermarkets and in honey displays or mini-shops outside of supermarkets. You can also buy it direct from beekeepers - either from their homes or right on the street, directly out of the pail.
I had one experience with a Hunanese beekeeper who was selling his wares right out of the bucket you see here. He even had raw honeycomb. I had gathered a crowd around me - it's not everyday you see a showdown between a foreigner and a rural Chinese beekeeper. In an attempt at a show of solidarity, I whipped out one of my old business cards with bees on it, and he couldn't have cared less. He wanted the sale, that's it.
After asking the price, I looked around at the crowd and one fellow was glancing at me while very slightly shaking his head. He was subtly telling me I was being cheated. I didn't end up with either the comb or the honey, but it is nice to know the local stuff is there. I am hoping to meet up with an actual beekeeper on site in the spring of 2011.
1 Ma, Lun Jiao. "International Comparison of the Export Competitiveness of Chinese Honey." Asian Agricultural Research 1:7 (2009): 17.
2 Oberman, Mira. "US Cracks Down on Chinese Honey Smuggling Ring." AFP 1 Sep. 2010.
3 Health Canada Chloramphenicol in Honey
4 Schneider, Andrew. "Honey Laundering: A Sticky Trail of Intrigue and Crime." Seattle PI 30 Dec. 2008.
About the Author:
This article first appeared in Bees Alive, an educational site founded and authored by apiculture enthusiast, Tara Bambrick, whom we are grateful to for allowing us to publish this story here. (Note: Her website is no longer available.)
1. A question that more and more people are asking: Do You Eat Honey From China?
2. Natural Honey, Pure Honey, Raw Honey...honey labels can be confusing: Natural Honey, Pure Honey, Raw Honey ~ Making Sense of Honey Labels.
3. Read John Smith's take on Chinese honey: Is Chinese Honey Fake Honey?.