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Dodging the honeypot: Local beekeepers feel the sting of counterfeit honey

Fred Crawford shows how bees build cells in a hive. Kyle Perrotti photo Fred Crawford shows how bees build cells in a hive. Kyle Perrotti photo

At a time when natural foods and medicines are becoming more prevalent, the popularity of honey has soared to record levels. 

As demand for honey increased by 73% in the last 10 years, the world now consumes an estimated 238,000 tons annually.  The United States, where people consume 1.3 pounds per person, imports 70% of its honey. Those driving the demand are onto something — not only is honey a healthier replacement for sugar, but it is also rich in enzymes and antioxidants that boost immunity and allergy resistance.

However, this spike in demand has outstripped the supply, and many grocers and honey distributors have turned to the international market to satisfy Americans’ sweet tooth.

Local beekeepers said that in North Carolina, visitors and residents alike ask mostly for two kinds of honey — tupelo, which usually comes from the eastern part of the state, and sourwood, which is produced in the mountains. While that demand leads plenty of distributors to label their honey as one of those products, it’s nearly impossible to make that claim, beekeepers say, since most hives produce honey from a variety of sources.

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This label appears on products the North Carolina Beekeepers Association has certified. photo

But that’s a far more banal form of fraud than what has pervaded the international market. With the soaring demand, bad actors have seized an opportunity to make an easy buck and will often cut their products with sugar from the likes of corn and rice syrup.

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Honey has been among the world’s most forged foods for years now, and the chief culprit behind much of the counterfeit supply is China. While entities in that country made a killing for decades selling adulterated honey, in December 2001, the U.S. Department of Commerce determined that Chinese honey was undercutting the market and subsequently imposed anti-dumping duties based first on the reported price and then on weight that have exceeded 200% of the product’s value.

Chinese sellers quickly found ways to circumvent the antidumping duties by mislabeling the product to skirt regulators. In June 2011, an undercover agent assumed the role of director of procurement at a honey distributor that by then was cooperating with a federal investigation. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two companies and five individuals for avoiding antidumping duties amounting to over $180 million. Around that time, China also began shipping its honey to other countries, including Vietnam, India and Malaysia, which then send it to the United States, thus avoiding the anti-dumping duties.

The Strange Case

Informal accusations and gossip point to several regional beekeepers and distributors that may sell counterfeit honey with varying degrees of knowledge and culpability. However, because current laws make it tough to actually seek damages and even harder to seek criminal fraud charges, not a lot has been done. However, 100 consumers recently filed a class action lawsuit against Strange Honey out of Del Rio, Tennessee, just across the border from Western North Carolina. Also named were several outlets that sold the honey in question. Their products can be seen on shelves in grocery stores, farmers markets and produce stands across the region.

An initial suit was filed in December 2019 but was voluntarily dismissed just a few months later; a new suit was filed in June 2020 that levied the same accusations. Strange Honey allegedly said its honey was locally produced despite having knowledge it wasn’t. An exhibit entered into evidence as part of the first suit outlines results of tests conducted November 2018 and October 2019 that analyzed Strange Honey’s product. Those tests indicated that the honey came from Vietnam and contained a sugar syrup of some kind.

According to the latest suit, while Strange Honey marketed its product as “100% raw honey from Tennessee,” that was demonstrably false. It also claims that the honey is heated, which makes packaging easier but also breaks down some of the enzymes, rendering it no longer “raw.” It further alleges that Strange Honey purchases some of the honey it ultimately sells from Vietnam and adulterates it with corn syrup.

The suit against the associated grocers was ultimately dismissed due to the plaintiffs’ failure to “identify a single, discrete instance of intentional misrepresentation.” Basically, because they couldn’t specify a specific date that misrepresentation occurred, the judge agreed that the complaint failed to satisfy the requirements for the case to continue. Likewise, the suit against Strange Honey was dismissed for a similar reason. Critics of the ruling who spoke with The Smoky Mountain News said they don’t necessarily hold the judge accountable for the ruling despite their belief that Strange Honey has been and continues to be adulterated, but rather they espoused the belief that the laws weren’t specific or strict enough to allow such a suit to succeed.

In an interview with SMN, owner Gary Strange denied the allegations of the suit and pointed to the dismissal as evidence of no wrongdoing.

“We don’t use foreign honey or Chinese honey or Vietnamese honey,” he said. “People see there’s a suit and they automatically assume you’re guilty. We get tested by the state and federal government. They come pull a sample and tell us, ‘If something’s wrong, you’ll hear from us.’ We never hear from them.”

However, this denial comes despite the fact that the multiple test results entered into evidence and an analysis commissioned by VICE for a 2020 article indicated otherwise. Strange said the problem with those tests is that people can adulterate the samples before submitting them to ensure the results convey whatever may satisfy their agendas.

“I can go to the store get a jar and put whatever I want in it and then send it off and say check,” he said.

Strange said that while he has about 1,200 hives on his Del Rio, Tennessee property, he also buys honey from independent beekeepers, both regionally and from down in Florida. He said that when he buys a product from another beekeeper he doesn’t know, he gets it tested, although he thinks those test results can sometimes be flawed. Strange claimed that part of the problem is that smaller beekeepers can create animosity toward larger operations like his within the beekeeping community.

“Most beekeepers are good people, but you’ve got some that got two or three or even 10 or 15 hives and think they know everything in the world,” he said. “They think they have the best honey in the world, so when they hear something, they believe it. You’ve got a lot of jealousy that comes into play.” 

Beekeeping 101

Fred Crawford is the president of the Smoky Mountain Beekeepers Association, which covers Swain County but also has some members who live in Jackson and Graham. The retired land surveyor’s wife is from Western North Carolina but met her future husband in Texas. Like so many others, once Crawford came to Western North Carolina, he was hooked, and that’s where the couple decided to retire. On several acres outside Whittier near the Swain-Jackson line, he and his wife enjoy hobbies that help cultivate a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Surrounding a wide-open lea is a chicken coop, a honey house and a workshop, among other small outbuildings, in addition to a large garden. Near the wood line on one end of the property are eight hives.

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Fred Crawford offers a glimpse inside a hive. Kyle Perrotti photo

“After tending to the garden, we heard about the county extension office and saw they offered classes, so I went to class for mushrooms, then for blueberry bushes,” Crawford said. “And they offered a beekeeping class. I thought, what the heck, might as well check it out. So now I’m a beekeeper.”

Crawford sells his honey to Bryson City Bakery.

“I’m just now getting started with that aspect,” he said.

He recalled what it was like embark on his beekeeping journey. The setup for a hive costs about $300, and that’s before buying a “package” of bees, 3 pounds, tens of thousands of bees — including a queen — needed to start a colony. He harvested no honey during the first year as the bees needed all the energy they could get while building their new home. Crawford barely touches his hives during the winter since the bees need whatever honey they may have on hand to make it through the winter. He said beekeepers can lose entire colonies over the winter. But come summer, he “robs” the hives of their honey. Now that things are moving, the yields have improved, and Crawford said he got about 140 pounds of honey from six hives last year.

Bees require year-round monitoring. Throughout the seasons, they are at the mercy of mother nature. For example, heavy spring rains can wash away valuable pollen, leaving bees scrambling. But adapting and overcoming is part of the draw for beekeepers like Crawford.

“That’s one of the things I really enjoy about beekeeping,” Crawford said, “it forces you to pay attention to the natural world and what’s going on.”

Crawford said membership in the beekeeping association he now heads up has been vital to his continued growth in the science.

“There’s nothing better than having someone who knows this area and has hives, and just following them around and seeing how they go into their hives,” he said.

Among Haywood County’s many avid beekeepers are Allen Blanton and David Zachary.  Blanton became intrigued with the unique world by watching his grandfather, but it wasn’t until more recently in 2014 that he dove in and earned a master beekeeper certification. Zachary got into beekeeping a couple of years later in August 2016 when he visited his brother up in Michigan and saw his apiary.

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David Zachary (left) and Allen Blanton are two of Haywood County's many enthusiastic beekeepers. Kyle Perrotti photo

“I saw the enthusiasm and said, ‘I need to be doing this,’” Zachary recalled. “So, he looked it up and said, ‘You have a club within 2 miles of your house.’ I went to the October 2016 meeting when Brother Allen was president. That’s how the Lord works.”

Now, Zachary teaches a beekeeping course at Haywood Community College.

Along with tending to their hives, Blanton and Zachary, an Army veteran, also tend to flocks in their roles as pastors. Zachary said the two passions go together like peanut butter and honey.

“The inventor of the Langstroth beehive, Lorena Lorenzo Langstroth, was a Methodist minister back in the 1850s,” he said. “She invented the box that’s still primarily used by beekeepers in America.” 

Like Crawford, Zachary said he enjoys the attention to detail required to run an apiary and stands firm in his opinion that it’s far more of a science than an art or a hobby, but as a pastor, he also employs the power of prayer.

“In life, if the Lord don’t have it in the plans, it’s not going to work out, and beekeeping is kind of similar,” he said. “It’s like keeping a garden. You want to garden and raise your own food? Good. But then you have to learn about the plants, and you have to get out there and weed every day. You also have to be proactive.”

Struggling To Keep Up

While the federal government hasn’t officially stated that counterfeit honey creates any immediate public health concerns, and the folks interviewed for this story didn’t think there was a significant environmental impact, the fact that the product can be adulterated so cheaply undermines the worldwide market, which affects beekeepers big and small, including the ones around Western North Carolina.

“Adulterated or fake honey depresses the price for real honey, making honey production unprofitable,” Kelvin Adee, president of the American Honey Producers Association, said in a 2020 Business Insider story. “Beekeepers have to turn to other sources of income such as packing and retailing honey themselves, raising queens/hives for sale or pollination services. Honey production by itself is not a sustainable option.”

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A look at the shelf at Blue Ridge Honey in Clayton, Georgia. Blue Ridge Honey photo

And counterfeit honey affects more than just beekeepers. Bob Binnie runs Blue Ridge Honey, one of the region’s largest distributors located in Clayton, Georgia, that sells products from several Western North Carolina beekeepers. Binnie, who has 1,400 hives of his own, is known in the industry as a paragon of integrity and reliability and also has a YouTube channel  aimed at improving the knowledge of beekeepers at all levels. Binnie, who’s passionate about getting adulterated honey out of the market, said he doesn’t buy from anyone he doesn’t “know and trust.” 

“I would never buy honey from outside the country,” he said.

Binnie lamented the current laws in place that allow people to continue to profit off fraudulent products. He said there should be better avenues for civil recourse, as well as criminal fraud prosecution.

“What they get away with is criminal,” he said. “These laws don’t properly define these things, and now we have to compete with this cheap honey.”

However, the North Carolina Beekeepers Association has a Certified Honey Producer Program and even maintains a database of apiaries and distributors that make the grade.

“That helps us to market our honey, because you know that we are agreeing to a standard,” Blanton said. “If that label’s on there, it’s guaranteed that it is what they say it is.”  

Crawford said he tries to determine what types of honey go into his jars by analyzing properties such as taste, color and thickness, as well as the time of year they’re harvested. However, he admitted that there is no way to know for sure. Blanton said consumers should be wary whenever they see any honey marketed as 100% sourwood — or 100% anything — considering it’s impossible to know where every bee in a hive is collecting pollen and nectar.

 “I never market my honey as 100% any particular flora,” he said. “I just say ‘mountain honey.’” 

The methods of testing honey include pollen analysis to determine the origin of the honey as well as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, which can identify what sugars may be present based on the number of carbon isotopes. Newer analyses can determine if the bees gathering the honey have been given antibiotics or may have been exposed to pesticides. The nearest testing lab is at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Gastonia that is funded by user fees, meaning beekeepers and distributors have to come out of pocket to prove or verify that their products are the real deal.

All the beekeepers interviewed for this story recommended that aspiring beekeepers join a local club to improve their knowledge and skills while also testing their products frequently. Zachary and Binnie added that if consumers want to do what they can to make sure they’re buying and consuming real honey, they should come to know local beekeepers and buy directly from them. Basically, everyone should know exactly where their product is coming from.

“I invite my customers out all the time,” Zachary said. “I try to educate people who buy from me, so they know they’re getting real honey, and once you start doing that, you can taste the difference.”

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