Honey laundering is in. Money laundering is passé

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By Tuhin Dutta

Divine nectar? Most honey brands have been found contaminated with antibiotics
Divine nectar? Most honey brands have been found contaminated with antibiotics

SOUNDS UNBELIEVABLE, but it’s true: honey is the latest addition to products associated with shady cross-border deals. And it could also be laced heavily with antibiotics. It is being imported, rebranded and then re-exported by rogue exporters. The European Union (EU) is deeply concerned about the high antibiotic levels in honey received from China, which has been put on its blacklist.

In a statement, the US Department of Justice said the honey laundering was being done to avoid the stiff anti-dumping duty that had been levied on Chinese honey. Between 2002 and 2009, 11 people — six Chinese and five Germans residing in the US — were indicted for allegedly conspiring to illegally import more than $40 million worth of Chinese-origin honey to avoid anti-dumping duties totalling nearly $80 million.

Honey laundering was a way to get around the EU’s ban and the US anti-dumping duty. The modus operandi is simple. A Chinese firm would tie up with a company in India or elsewhere to supply impure honey at throwaway prices. Once the consignment arrived, say, in India, the local firm would add Indian honey to the Chinese product, lowering the antibiotic levels. The consignment would then be labelled as Indian, new importers sought and the produce exported to the US.

Says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director at the Delhi-based NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE): “The export might originate in China, take a multiple route through Indonesia, India and Nairobi, or some other nation, before it reaches the US. Everyone in between can have cuts.” The CSE has conducted a study on the entire issue.

A US Department of Justice chargesheet, a copy of which is with TEHELKA, clearly states that laundered honey has passed through India. The Indian company that allegedly was part of this ring is referred to as the “Indian trans-shipper”. This unnamed Indian company is said to have exported Chinese honey (under the guise of Indian honey) worth over $10 million between 2002 and 2006. The biggest order that this Indian exporter supplied to the US was in 2004: 48 containers of honey valued at a little over $1 million.

But this avenue has since been blocked, with the US banning the reshipment of honey, and the Indian government issuing a notification saying Chinese honey cannot be repackaged in the country and sent to the US.

The EU too, for its part, has clamped a ban on import of Indian honey. Says the Official Journal of the European Union: “A commission inspection to India had revealed serious deficiencies concerning the implementation of the residue monitoring plan of milk and honey. India has been informed accordingly.”

The laundering process began with the EU’s ban and the US’ levy on Chinese honey. While the EU blacklisted it due to the presence of chloramphenicol, a banned substance, America slapped a 221 percent duty to protect its own apiaries.

Thereafter, Chinese exports witnessed a huge downslide. Exports dropped from more than 100,000 tonnes in 2001 to 65,000 tonnes in 2007, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Disturbingly, the FAO found that in the same period, Chinese production of honey shot up from 254,359 tonnes to 367,219 tonnes.

So quite naturally, the question arose as to whether China was consuming the honey or had found new markets. In 2002, Australia had imported a large consignment from Singapore, most of it bound for the US. Investigations revealed that Singapore did not have honey-producing facilities, and that the consignment was shipped from China to Singapore, then on to Australia en route to its final destination, the US, says the CSE.

Honey of Chinese origin with high antibiotic content is being exported to India and some other countries

Honey was even filtered to rid it of all its signature contaminants like pollen and soil, shipped to a third country and then to the US, it said.

In India honey is regulated under three legislations: Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955; the Bureau of Indian Standards; and the Grading and Marking Act, 1937, (better known as AGMARK), implemented by the Union Ministry of Agriculture. However, none of them has any kind of standards for measuring antibiotic levels. Only the Export Inspection Council (EIC) has the capability of doing this. But then, that’s only for the honey meant for exports. “We have the legal power to penalise those who export honey which contains antibiotics or any other substance. That is why honey cannot be exported without us giving the certificate of export,” EIC director SK Saxena told TEHELKA.

Exporters who lost substantially as a result of the rigorous steps taken by the US and EU — the biggest importers of honey — are now targeting some 40-odd countries, which do not have similar stringent safeguards. Currently, West Asia is receiving huge consignments of honey, led by Saudi Arabia.

But honey producers are facing a battle in the domestic market as well. That’s because while there are parameters for exports, there are none for local consumption, or imports. “We do conduct checks on the honey being exported. But worryingly, a lot of it is being imported from China, most of it containing antibiotics, which gets consumed in India,” said a senior EIC official, who did not want to be identified.

HONEY, TOUTED as a safe sweetener, came under a cloud in India after the CSE recently revealed that honey marketed by popular Indian brands contain high levels of antibiotics.

The organisation tested 12 branded honey samples for six antibiotics, and found these in 11 of them. And, all the samples came from trusted names like Dabur Honey of Dabur India Ltd, which holds over 75 percent stake in the branded honey segment; Himalaya Forest Honey of Himalaya Drug Company, one of India’s oldest Ayurveda drug companies; Patanjali Pure Honey of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd of Haridwar; and Baidyanath Wild Flower Honey of the Kolkata-based Shree Baidyanath Ayurved Bhavan Private Ltd.

When asked about it, a Dabur India official said, “We are checking the reports and will comment once this is done.” With the US probe being an ongoing one, more skeletons are definitely bound to pop out of the closet.

Photo: Dreamstime

tuhin.dutta@fwtehelka.com

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