By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; A13
Washington is buzzing over an unusual lobbying push by the U.S. honey industry, which is asking the federal government for help amid lower domestic honey production and a flood of cheap imports from China.
With vocal assistance from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. beekeepers, honey producers and packers are pressing the Obama administration to crack down on "honey launderers" in China who ship the product through third countries to avoid the sting of anti-dumping duties.
Industry groups and some lawmakers are also pressing the Food and Drug Administration to establish a national "standard of identity" for honey to ensure that products are 100 percent pure, rather than diluted with other sweeteners to cut costs or evade import restrictions.
But honey advocates complain that the FDA and other federal agencies have swatted away their concerns.
"A standard for honey would protect consumers because they'd get what they're paying for, and it would protect legitimate producers," said Bob Bauer, executive vice president of the New Jersey-based National Honey Packers and Dealers Association. "But it's not a priority for them."
FDA officials have said previously that a national purity standard for honey would tax the abilities of an already overstretched agency. FDA spokesman Ira R. Allen said the request is "under consideration in the context of other agency priorities."
The push for action comes at a difficult time for the U.S. honey industry, which is grappling with a mysterious affliction known as "colony collapse disorder" that has decimated the honeybee population in the United States. Domestic production last year was down 12 percent, to 144 million pounds, according to the Agriculture Department; more than 200 million pounds of honey was imported, much of it from China and other Asian locales.
The only problem: Many of those countries, including India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia, have no history of significant honey production. U.S. officials believe most of the honey probably originates in China and is sent through other countries to avoid the tariff.
China has been the target of a honey duty since 2001 in retaliation for repeatedly dumping underpriced honey onto the U.S. market, according to federal officials. U.S. trade experts say Chinese companies evade the penalties by using third countries as transit points; mislabeling honey or diluted honey as malt sweetener or syrup; or using fly-by-night importers to ship the product and then disappear before paying duties.
U.S. producers also raise health concerns: Earlier this month, the FDA announced the seizure of 64 drums of imported Chinese honey in Philadelphia that was contaminated with a potent antibiotic not approved by the agency for use in food. "Why would we allow China to just dump whatever honey they can't get into Europe or anywhere else into the United States?" asked Richard Pasco of McLeod, Watkinson & Miller, who lobbies on behalf of several major U.S. honey producers.
The industry's five major trade groups banded together in 2006 to formally request a national purity standard for honey from the FDA, but so far the agency has not acted. Two industry groups, the National Honey Board and the True Source Honey Initiative, have launched public relations campaigns this year urging the agency to act and extolling consumers to purchase only pure honey.
"A legal definition on the books is something that is needed to help successfully prosecute anyone who is caught trying to sell honey that is mixed with a cheap sweetener or is not 100 percent pure honey," said Bruce Boynton, chief executive of the honey board, which operates under the oversight of the Agriculture Department. "A standard of identity would serve as a warning to dishonest individuals who try to cheat consumers and undermine beekeepers and honest companies."
The issue has received additional attention in recent months from the voluble Schumer, who is not usually associated with agricultural issues. New York ranks 12th in the nation for honey production, and is also one of the country's top beekeeping states, the senator's office says.
Honey also fits into Schumer's broader critique of Chinese trade practices. He and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are crafting legislation that would increase the ability of the Commerce Department and other U.S. agencies to crack down on shady imports, including honey.
"This is just one more example of China playing by its own rules to the detriment of [everyone] else," Schumer said in a recent statement, adding: "The federal government ought to issue a stinging rebuke to these practices, and level the playing field for U.S. honey producers."