Chinese honey? Yet another Chinese product with a bad reputation…
Chinese honey production, like in so many areas of commerce, is suffering from a great deal of bad press. Why? China may still be communist, but they have a capitalist love of money that is in no way new. And seldom do love of money and careful adherence to quality and safety standards go together. But, send out a bad product and someone is going to notice. Hopefully.
Do the actions of companies that get caught reflect the actions of everyone? Likely not, but the damage has been done. I am currently living in China and have worked my way through multiple jars of honey produced by this country (the three of them pictured in order here). The third jar is actually made in Hunan province where I lived at the time of purchase, so I suppose I ‘shopped locally’ even though I bought it in a supermarket. On the truly local front, while living in the Hunanese countryside, I met a local beekeeper selling honey on the street (see photos and story below) .
This site will be updated as experiences are accumulated. In the meantime, I’ll outline issues and what I have learned personally below. I have a separate page that serves as a photo gallery of bees and other flying insects that I encounter here in China and other Asian countries if I get a chance to visit.
China as a Honey Producer and Exporter
Many countries buy honey in bulk from other countries. The product is bottled and then labelled as a product of the country that bottles it. It doesn’t sound quite right, but it happens. As a consumer, you can buy a product with a nationalistic ‘buy local’ mentality, and the most local thing about it is the sales tax you pay. The reality is, if you buy honey in supermarkets, you have likely consumed Chinese honey.
China is a major producer of honey – as of 2006, they account for 25% of all exported honey in the world and 20% of the total world output of honey. Its major competitors are Argentina and Mexico. China only exports about 27% of their total output, and unlike many countries, they have kept their prices well under the international average, and thus stable.1 Despite this competitive advantage, they fight with trade bans for a variety of reasons, including failure to comply with standards.
One of the major beekeeping regions in China is Qinghai province in the west adjacent to Tibet. A large province, it is sparsely populated with fewer than 5 million people. It is a common place to be sent for labour reform. While thinly populated, the province has plenty of grasslands and animals and turns out high-quality sheep and yak wool in addition to honey.
Traces of Antibiotics and Honey-Laundering
Chinese honey has become synonymous with ‘tainted honey’ and ‘honey laundering’. Antibiotics such as Chloramphenicol have been discovered in trace amounts in Chinese imports.2,3 Some of these antibiotics are known to cause blood disorders, although it is unknown whether the amounts found in the honey are harmful. Further, the imported honey is low-grade and destined to be further diluted before human consumption.
In the latter issue – ‘honey laundering’ – to avoid paying duties that are imposed by various countries on Chinese honey, China will often route their product through other countries.4 The honey will often undergo filtering to remove traces of pollen that can identify the source of the honey, or the end product is often labelled as another substance.
Buying Honey in China
In Hunan province, in the south of China, which is not a big honey-producing area, you can still get honey everywhere. Even in the small town where I lived, honey is available on the shelves of the supermarket and in pharmacies. Honey is considered medicinal, and you can see it by the way it is marketed through special areas within the supermarkets and in honey displays or mini-shops outside of supermarkets. One of my students told me her father – a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner – would go up into the mountains to collect wild honey for use in his practice. But if you don’t want to buy commercialized honey or go and collect it yourself, you can also buy it direct from beekeepers – either from their homes or right on the street, directly out of the pail.
I had one experience with a Hunanese beekeeper who was selling his wares right out of the bucket you see here. He even had raw honeycomb. I stopped to take a look, and within moments, I had gathered a crowd around me – it’s not everyday you see a showdown between a foreigner and a rural Chinese beekeeper. In an attempt at a show of solidarity, I whipped out one of my old business cards with bees on it, and he couldn’t have cared less. He wanted the sale, that’s it. Very unfriendly. After asking the price, I looked around at the crowd and one fellow was glancing at me while very slightly shaking his head. He was subtly telling me I was being cheated in some way. I didn’t end up with either the comb or the honey, but it is nice to know the local stuff is there.
Check out references at the bottom of this page. Also see a few other posts from my blog on honey that I’ve purchased while in China.
1 Ma, Lun Jiao. “International Comparison of the Export Competitiveness of Chinese Honey.” Asian Agricultural Research 1:7 (2009): 17.
2 Oberman, Mira. “US Cracks Down on Chinese Honey Smuggling Ring.” AFP 1 Sep. 2010.
3 Health Canada Chloramphenicol in Honey
4 Schneider, Andrew. “Honey Laundering: A Sticky Trail of Intrigue and Crime.” Seattle PI 30 Dec. 2008.