Aside from its use in cooking and baking, honey has a certain reputation among those in favor of natural cures and products, being recommended for everything from allergy cures (local honey is said to desensitize people to the pollens in their area that cause hay fever) to wound care. Demand is high in the U.S., with consumption around 400 million pounds per year. Production is well below that; the 2012 crop is estimated at about 150 million pounds. As a result, the U.S. imports a lot of honey.
In February, charges were brought in a case of honey dumping—Chinese honey imported and sold illegally in the U.S.—and more than 3,000 drums of the stuff were seized. Taxation issues aside, some of the honey was found to be contaminated with antibiotics. Chinese honey is commonly adulterated and often contains illegal and even dangerous drugs; it has been banned from sale in Europe. So how did it get here? Via ultra-filtration, which removes the pollen and thus makes it nearly impossible to identify the honey’s country of origin once it’s in a jar on a grocer’s shelf. Honey purists will tell you that if it doesn’t contain pollen, it isn’t even honey.
China isn’t the only Asian country offering adulterated honey; India’s been caught with its hand in the pot, too. Nor is honey the only troublesome Asian product. For the last several years, Asian imports have been fraught with problems. Japan has its own difficulties, with seafood, rice, and vegetables contaminated with radiation post-Fukushima. But by far the largest source is China, where the business environment has been described by nonprofit Food and Water Watch as a “Wild West” that Chinese regulators admit is beyond their control.
Among more prominent incidents over the last decade or so have been defective tire valve stems, recalled in the millions after a fatality from a blowout. Another Chinese tire manufacturer omitted a required safety feature designed to avoid tread separation; those, too, were recalled.
Pet owners were distraught and outraged when dog food was found to be stretched with melamine, causing kidney failure and killing thousands of pets all over the country. Drywall from China used to repair homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina caused its own storm; defective, it emitted gases that not only corroded copper wiring and air conditioning but also caused health problems and made houses unlivable.
Other problem products have included contaminated shipments of the blood thinner heparin, causing 81 fatalities just in the U.S.; toys contaminated with lead or cadmium; toothpaste containing diethylene glycol—more commonly found in antifreeze—and reusable grocery bags containing lead.
Even fruits, vegetables, and seafood are not safe, with cases of the first two exhibiting contamination from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides—many of which have been prohibited from use elsewhere—and the last from agricultural residues, chemicals, illegal antibiotics, and veterinary drugs.
Not all the contaminated products from China are for the export market; milk contaminated with melamine killed six children in China and sickened 300,000 more, and Yum Brands’ Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in China took a huge hit when the locally supplied chicken they were serving contained antibiotics. Other familiar corporations affected by melamine contamination include Mars, Unilever, Cadbury and Heinz.