by DeWayne Lumpkin
American Reporter Correspondent
Grants Pass, Ore.
September 29, 2003
CONTAMINATED CHINESE HONEY PUTS SARA LEE AND SMUCKERS IN STICKY SITUATION
GRANTS PASS, Ore., Sept. 29, 2003 -- Two of America's best-known brands, Sara Lee and J.M. Smuckers, have found themselves embroiled in a sticky situation involving Chinese honey smuggling that has roiled the global honey industry and led to investigations and recalls. Two federal agencies and both companies acknowledge they have a problem with companies that disguise the origin of Chinese honey contaminated with a powerful antibiotic that in some cases can cause anemia, The American Reporter has learned.
Meanwhile, members of the American Honey Producers Association worry the reputation of their honey could be tainted by contaminated imports and fear a panicky consumer reaction like those involving Japanese apples and pesticides several years ago. U.S. Customs Service and Food and Drug Administration investigations have already led to recalls of some honey in U.S. and Canadian restaurants.
A July 2003 FDA report included a Smuckers recall for 12,040 cases of honey packaged and private labeled for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Dickenson's Family Products. The honey contained chloramphenicol, a broad spectrum antibiotic banned for use in food products and reserved for treatment of serious illnesses such as typhoid fever.
Last month, Sara Lee acknowledged using over 100,000 pounds of honey contaminated with chloramphenicol in fresh-baked goods sold and presumably eaten by consumers last summer. The affected products were distributed by Earthgrains, a company owned by Sara Lee.
Idiosyncratic aplastic anemia has been linked to chloramphenicol. It occurs in a very small percentage of the population but can be life-threatening to susceptible individuals. Antibiotic levels in honey are a fraction of those found in pharmaceutical prescriptions; a safe dosage level has not yet been determined.
Problems with Chinese honey surfaced three years ago when food inspectors from the European Union discovered chloramphenicol in honey from China. The EU banned all Chinese food products derived from bees including honey and royal jelly.
Explanations for the presence of chloramphenicol in Chinese honey vary. European agricultural inspectors report indiscriminate veterinary and agriculture usage. The use of human waste as fertilizer by some rural Chinese farmers may lead to soil and water contamination and subsequent usage of broad spectrum antibiotics, concerned environmentalists say.
China began dumping their honey on the American market at below production costs in the late 1990's. In September, 2000, several American honey producers filed an unfair trade cases with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The action was successful and punitive tariffs up to 184 percent were levied on specific Chinese companies in May 2001.
Some Chinese companies attempted to circumvent the tariffs with an elaborate smuggling operation. In August 2002, joint international investigations implicated China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico and Australia in the scheme.
Unscrupulous exporters relabeled Chinese honey as a product of their respective country and transshipped it to the United States. Sometimes the Chinese import was blended with native honey and exported; usually it was simply relabeled and sent here.
Countries with little previous history of exporting honey began shipping full containers to America. Some developing nations were incapable of producing the quality of honey they were exporting. Australia was in the middle of a widely reported drought that reduced their agricultural crops, yet their honey exports increased.
As a result the two agencies sought a marker in Chinese honey, identifying its country of origin. Due to EU testing and reports that chloramphenicol was found in Chinese honey, this became the FDA's marker.
Throughout 2003, problems with Chinese honey continue to surface. A U.S. Customs document lists foreign companies whose honey can be detained without physical inspection. The 11 companies included have headquarters in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Hungary, Malaysia and China. In addition to the nations on the U.S. list, news reports have also implicated India and Turkey in Chinese "honey laundering." To date, customs officers have detained more than 50 iocean-shipping containers of suspicious honey.
Incidents reported this summer involving Smuckers and Sara Lee demonstrate a great deal of flexibility in determining the risk to consumers and devising a corporate reaction. There appears to be a stark contrast between the way Smuckers discovered and reacted to tests confirming adulterated honey and Sara Lee's notification of a potentially polluted food source and its response.
A Smuckers spokeswoman said their company confirmed the presence of chloramphenicol through internal testing, and voluntarily issued a recall of all affected products and notified the FDA. The recall included honey packaged and private labeled for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Dickenson's Family Products (a Smuckers subsidiary).
An FDA spokeswoman confirmed regulations did not require countries of origin to be listed on each of the more than 800,000 individual units affected. This information was included on each case. The recalled honey was a blend including product from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, India, and Brazil. Companies from Mexico, Turkey and India have been implicated in transshipping disguised Chinese honey.
Contacted by The American Reporter, Stephanie Platt of the upscale Ritz Carlton Hotels chain, where individual jars of the product are part of the chain's lavish breakfast service, reported, "We immediately complied with the FDA recall and therefore there is no more of the recalled honey in our hotels."
Smucker's also issued a statement, saying, "The supplier of honey in question was not a main supplier and the J.M. Smucker Company no longer does business with them. We prefer not to disclose the name of the supplier as we are currently evaluating potential causes of action against them as a result of the honey issue."
Sara Lee's spokesman acknowledged 118,780 pounds of honey testing positive for chloramphenicol were used in fresh-baked goods distributed by Earthgrains last summer. Sara Lee's Baking Group is headquartered in Saint Louis, Mo.
Sara Lee was notified by their honey supplier, Hoyt's Honey Farm, Inc. on Aug. 19, 2002 that the FDA was testing their honey source for antibiotic adulteration. Hoyt's Honey Farms, Inc. is located in Baytown, Tex.
Sara Lee's spokesman confirmed receipt of 155,000 pounds of blended honey from Hoyt's. The honey in question had cleared customs as a product of Malaysia. The FDA explained that other shipments from the same supplier had tested positive for chloramphenicol which is an indication of Chinese origin.
Neither Hoyt's nor Sara Lee conducted their own tests to determine contamination by an FDA banned antibiotic, which can also be obtained cheaply from outside laboratories. Central Analytical Laboratories, for instance, based near Hoyt's in Louisiana, offers analysis of honey for chloramphenicol at a cost of $75.00 with results returned in three to five days. Clients are able to pay an extra $75.00 rush fee for test results within a single working day.
Sara Lee continued to use honey supplied by Hoyt's for 10 days after notification of FDA suspicions and testing for the banned antibiotic. Their spokesman estimated at least 500,000 loaves of bread containing the Hoyt's honey were distributed to retail locations in numerous states.
Commercial bread recipes indicate honey normally comprises from three to five percent of total ingredients. Based on the amount of honey used, Sara Lee's estimate of the number of affected loaves of bread could be a conservative figure.
The Hoyt's honey under FDA investigation was quarantined by Sara Lee on August 29, 2002. FDA tests confirmed chloramphenicol contamination on September 18. Sara Lee returned the 36,320 unused pounds of tainted honey to Hoyt's for credit.
Hoyt's owner says the Texas Department of Health placed an official quarantine on the adulterated honey in October. FDA press releases reported 92 tons of honey was confiscated from Hoyt's by U.S. Marshals in February of this year, the largest honey seizure to date.
Sara Lee maintains their actions were "prudent and responsible." The FDA indicates no laws were broken and no actions are expected based on the incident. Sara Lee continues to use Hoyt's Honey Farms as a supplier.
Members of the American Honey Producers Association sent a letter to U.S. Congressmen Mark Udall, Tom Tancredo and Wayne Allard, U.S. Sen. Ben Campbell and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. "We feel, and want your office to assert, that both for food safety reasons as well as other reasons the recall of illegally purchased Chinese honey should extend not only to the first importer, but also to all the people that importer sold the product to... ."
The letter continues, "For example, the FDA confiscated honey this Spring from the Hoyt Honey Co. in Houston ... the amount confiscated did not add up to the amount imported. Where was the rest? It was probably at Sara Lee's bakery. An inspection of the drums of honey purchased by Sara Lee would have been easily accomplished... . The honey not yet used should have been confiscated."
The AHPA letter to the Colorado officials asserts, "The feeling amongst those of us who want the FDA to do what the public thinks it does is that in this instance they just wanted to give the appearance of enforcement, not actual enforcement."
An FDA spokeswoman declined to comment on the AHPA letter.
American honey producers are concerned about FDA labeling regulations allowing blended honey from international sources to be labeled "Product of U.S."
AHPA President Lyle Johnston says "U.S. honey is the safest in the world. It's harvested and processed under stringent health regulations and has never contained chloramphenicol."
No adverse health reactions have been reported as a result of food products containing chloramphenicol. The CDC and WHO report new strains of bacteria are developing with resistance to available antibiotics.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are considered a direct result of imprudent use of broad spectrum antibiotics by prescription, in veterinary applications and for agricultural purposes, all over the world.