What is Adulteration?

Consumers may be wondering, “what’s so bad about honey that looks and tastes better?” But the truth is that honey that has been adulterated is not “real” honey at all – adulteration is fraud.

Despite the growing body of research on adulteration and the industry outcry regarding the pricing disparity, the scope of honey fraud in the U.S. remains unclear. No one appears to have a definite answer to the questions of how much adulterated honey has entered the U.S. market, who is responsible, and what is to be done about it. This creates a challenge for those attempting to curb honey fraud. The primary problem is that the honey industry is plagued by a system of self-regulation that precludes reliability and transparency and undermines consumer trust. There are no firm legal or ethical standards mandating that honey testers publish their results, and therefore no duty to notify consumers when their honey is fake.

From what we can tell, U.S. honey fraud involves multiple steps: First, the honey is adulterated in its country of origin and exported by foreign honey producers largely from China, Vietnam, India, and Ukraine. This is particularly concerning considering many countries in South Asia, such as India, have a major adulteration problem. Given that India is one of the biggest exporters to the U.S., it stands to reason that its adulteration problem would bleed into the U.S. honey market.

Second, adulterated honey is misrepresented as “real” via the certification process. After importation, importers and packers send hand-picked samples of honey to be certified by companies like True Source Honey before it is packed and labeled. Certifiers use “independent” third party labs and auditors who purportedly trace the origin, analyze the composition, and verify the authenticity of the honey. However, in the U.S., certifiers and all other players along the supply chain are disincentivized from reporting the highly profitable fraudulent honey and there are minimal safeguards in place ensuring that the appropriate testing parameters are taken.

Third, once the adulterated honey has been certified as “authentic,” it is sent to retailers where it is misbranded and marketed illegally to consumers as “real” or “pure” honey. 

The UCLA Food Law and Policy Clinic put the honey industry to the test. We sent five samples of honey from commercial retailers to be tested for authenticity at Sweetwater Science Labs in Columbia, Missouri: Barkman Honey, Kroger, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon. However, none of the results indicated that any of the honey was adulterated. If the honey industry is so fraught with fraud, then how is it possible that none of our samples came back positive for signs of adulteration?

One explanation is that foreign honey producers are developing innovative adulteration techniques faster than food regulators can update testing procedures – which are sometimes inadequate to begin with. For example, in India experts suggest that Chinese honey producers have designed sugar syrups capable of bypassing Indian laboratory tests. These “all pass” syrups easily fool Indian laboratories which do not employ the same technologies used in other countries such as Germany, which specialize in testing for honey adulteration. When the Indian honey was put to the test in Germany, out of 13 different honey brands only 3 passed.

Another, more likely, explanation is that the growing concern regarding the pending litigation has put bad actors on notice and provided them with an incentive to change standard operating procedure to avoid detection of adulteration. Lawsuits targeting adulterators, like the one filed by Gillian Wade, a partner and lead consumer fraud and class action litigation attorney at Milstein, Jackson, Fairchild & Wade, have forced them to come up with creative ways to stay in business whilst remaining under the radar. There is strong evidence to suggest that importers and packers are prioritizing putting authentic honey into the consumer marketplace, while diverting adulterated honey somewhere else entirely.

Experts, like food investigator and creator of the GenuHoney® certification program Mitchell Weinberg, believe that most adulterated honey is being diverted into the industrial rather than the retail market[R(2] . Whereas retail honey is sold as-is to consumers in commercial grocery stores, industrial honey is sold primarily to food manufacturers as an ingredient to be mixed or baked into finished products such as condiments, cereals, or baked goods. Industrial honey is less likely to be comprehensively tested for adulteration. Food manufacturers are either unaware of the extent of the problem or simply do not have the wherewithal to care. Or worse, they are aware of adulteration but will remain apathetic without the proper incentive to change.

This was from an interview with Ron Phipps. [R(1]

This is from an interview with Mitchell Weinberg. [R(2]

This infographic can be printed for distribution.

*Terra Duchene is a graduating LL.M. student at UCLA (2021), and an Ontario licensed lawyer holding a law degree from Windsor Law where she held positions including Editor-in-Chief for the Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues, Senior Editor of the Canadian Bar Review, and co-organizer of two food law panels. Terra’s interest in food law is praxis oriented and she enjoys foraging and fermenting.

Victoria Russell is a rising third-year law student at the UCLA School of Law enrolled in the Critical Race Studies Program. She is a member of UCLA BLSA and recently participated in UCLA’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Victoria is passionate about civil rights and public service.

Candace Yamanishi is a rising third year law student at UCLA Law (2022). She currently serves as the Symposium Director for the Journal of Environmental Law & Policy and as a research assistant at the Resnick Center for Food Law & Policy. This summer Candace is working as a summer associate at a large firm in downtown Los Angeles. Candace plans to stay involved with food law issues through pro-bono and volunteer work post-graduation.

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