They're calling it "honey laundering." More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores is filtered to the point where it contains no pollen -- which would make it flunk the quality standards set by most of the world's food safety agencies, according to testing done by Food Safety News.
The Food and Drug Administration says that any product that's been so ultra-filtered that it no longer contains pollen isn't honey. However, the FDA does not check honey sold here to see if it contains pollen. The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
Ultra filtering is a process where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey.
Food Safety News bought more than 60 jars, jugs and plastic bears of honey sold in various outlets in 10 states and the District of Columbia. The contents were analyzed for pollen by Vaughn Bryant, a professor at Texas A&M University and one of the nation's premier melissopalynologists, or investigators of pollen in honey.
Bryant, who is director of the Palynology Research Laboratory, found that among the containers of honey:
• 76 percent bought at groceries had all of the pollen removed. Stores included TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.
• 100 percent of the honey from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.
• 77 percent of the honey from big box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart and Target had the pollen filtered out.
• 100 percent of the honey in the small packets from Smucker, McDonald's and KFC had the pollen removed.
On the plus side, Bryant found that every one of the samples from farmers markets, co-ops and "natural" stores like PCC and Trader Joe's had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.
If you have to buy at major grocery chains, the analysis found that your odds are better of getting honey that wasn't ultra-filtered if you buy brands labeled as organic. Out of seven samples tested, five (71 percent) were full of pollen.
This is an issue because most of this filtered honey probably originally comes from China, where it is tainted by illegal animal antibiotics and heavy metals--but without the pollen, it is impossible to trace its origin. Also, some nutritionists say pollen imparts health benefits.
The FDA actually cracked down about 10 years ago on crappy Chinese honey imports, so China just started "laundering" their honey through other Asian countries like India and Vietnam. Of the 208 million pounds of honey the U.S. imported over the last 18 months, almost 60 percent came from Asian countries, according to FSN.
"FDA does not consider 'ultra-filtered' honey to be honey," agency press officer Tamara Ward told Food Safety News, but added: "We have not halted any importation of honey because we have yet to detect 'ultra-filtered' honey." But many in the honey industry and some in the FDA's import office told FSN that they doubt the FDA checks more than 5 percent of all foreign honey shipments. FSN says the FDA has ignored repeated pleas from Congress, beekeepers and the honey industry to develop a U.S. standard for identification for honey.
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Follow Samantha Bonar at @samanthabonar