By Alan Harman
Canada is under siege from mountains of cheap honey suddenly pouring in from strange suppliers, and the Canadian Honey Council believes the honey is being transshipped to disguise its true origin – China, the well-known marketer of low-quality, tainted product.
Unusual volumes entered Canada in the first quarter of this year from countries as diverse as Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Moldova and even Zambia.
The statistics, supplied to Bee Culture by the council, show Zambia shipped 2,395 kg in the first quarter with a value of C$19,862.
It is the only country in southern Africa to suddenly find a growing market in Canada.
It is all the more dramatic because Zambia shipped just 10,985 kg for all of last year.
Moldova, on the other hand, began boosting shipments in 2012, rising from just 480 kg in 2011, to 6,900 kg the next year. Last year it was 6,966 kg, but it started this year with a 1,838-kg first-quarter windfall.
In four of the five years from 2009, Vietnam sent just 20 kg of honey to Canada. But in 2013 it popped up with sales of 19,209 kg and last year was 17,843 kg, a figure overwhelmed by its first-quarter sales this year of 29,360 kg.
Ukraine exported 5 kg to Canada in the four years before 2015 when shipments soared to 445,421 kg. Last year the total was 155,262 kg and this year’s first quarter saw 26,254 kg land in Canada.
Myanmar, still better known as Burma, shipped no honey to Canada between 2009 and 2013 as a result of international sanctions, but then moved 58,200 kg in 2014 and 201,002 kg last year. The bees had to be working extra hard for it to be able to boost its shipments to 140,701 kg in this year’s first quarter.
Council executive director Rod Scarlett doesn’t think it is bees doing the overtime.
He believes most of the honey entering Canada is produced by China and marketed by other players in an elaborate honey-laundering industry involving third countries.
“It is a slow process in getting the message out,” he tells Bee Culture.
It may not in fact be pure honey, but a blend of honey and corn syrup.
“We have a serious food-fraud problem,” Scarlett is quoted as saying in Vancouver newspapers.
The council is asking the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to expand its operation from not only looking at food safety but also at food fraud.
What raises suspicions about the origins of the imported honey is that Saudi Arabia, for instance, is one of the world’s larger importers of honey, while Myanmar is a tiny player.
Saudi Arabia jumped from 5,439 kg in in 2012 to 27,023 kg in in 2013 and 61,610 kg a year later. Last year total shipments to Canada were 36,484 kg. This year it has exploded to 22,491 kg in just the first quarter.
Thailand has a similar record. It shipped only 579 kg of honey to Canada in the five years from 2009 before soaring to 764,835 kg last year and then to 171,680 kg in this year’s first quarter.
Spain is also a suspect in the transshipping scheme. Its Canadian shipments ranged between 2,000 and 6,000 kg for years before dramatically increasing to 75,514 kg in 2014 and then 766,116 kg in 2015. In this year’s first quarter it sent 123,053 kg.
“What we’ve seen in the latest import stats, is that countries … have unusually high imports into Canada,” Scarlett tells the Western Producer farm weekly. “It’s countries that really don’t produce a lot of honey.”
China has a reputation for poor-quality honey loaded with contaminants and is working hard to avoid using a “Made in China” label on the product, he says.
Twice this year, U.S. federal agents in Chicago have seized 50-ton shipments of Chinese honey with fake documentation claiming it came from Vietnam.
“Honey is coming to Canada from countries that have no tradition of honey production, so we know it’s being transshipped,” Scarlett says. “That honey – and I use the term loosely – is 50 cents a pound, or more, cheaper, so it drives down the price for everyone.”
What is happening with Canada is remarkably similar to the situation with Australia 17 years ago.
A media investigation into the scale of the Australian honey relabeling operations, found that up to 2,228t of Chinese honey was shipped to Australia, mainly through Singapore, and then re-exported to the United States in the 2001-02 financial year at a time when the U.S. had banned Chinese honey.
A survey of the Australian beekeeping industry at the time released by the Australian Rural Research and Development Corp. showed that Australia’s honey imports from bee-less Singapore jumped from zero to 1,447t that financial year.
At the same time, Singapore’s honey imports from China rose from 2t in 2000-01 to 751t the following year.
Not coincidentally, Australian exports to the U.S. rose from 108t in 1999-00 and 168t in 2000-01 to 2,344t in 2001-02 – a year when Australian honey production was decimated by the worst drought since European settlement in 1788.
This time around, there’s no honey from Singapore, but what is happening in Canada has seen the price paid to Canadian producers fall from C$5.35 a kilogram (US$1.88/lb.) last year to about C$2.85 (US$1/lb.) this year – below the cost of production for most apiarists.
“This is having a huge impact on honey producers, especially on the Prairies where most of the bulk honey for export is produced,” Scarlett says. “Typical cost of production is around C$3.30 a kg (US$1.15/lb.), so there are a lot of guys sitting on honey or selling it at a loss just for the cash flow.”
He says this year’s unprecedented shipments of honey from Saudi Arabia, Moldova and Zambia during the first quarter this year are puzzling.
As is China, the world’s biggest honey producer, in shipping only C$910 (US$702) or 165 kg worth of honey to Canada in the first quarter, while shipments from its immediate neighbors totaled more than C$1.1 million (US$848,264).
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reports Manitoba beekeepers say the low prices as a result of the imported honey glut could force some out of business.
Allan Campbell, who co-owns Durston Honey Farms near Dauphin, Man., tells the broadcaster he is still sitting on some of last year’s crop and not even lowering prices is making it move.
“I’ve spoken with many different producers who are still sitting on tons and tons of last year’s honey,” Campbell says. “To make matters worse, there seems to be quite an issue with Chinese honey being transshipped through other countries and coming into the country illegally.”
Canadian Honey Council chairman Kevin Nixon tells the CBC that beekeepers across Canada are dealing with the same issues.
“The market is saturated globally, and it is affecting all of us right now,” he says. “We’ve been told there is a global over-supply of honey.”
Nixon says Chinese honey loaded with antibiotics was essentially shut out of the North American market the mid-2000s.
“They started shipping it to other countries, and those countries re-exported it,” Nixon says. “”We’re seeing honey coming from Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar.”
Nixon says the honey can be traced through its pollen and floral patterns.
“This isn’t about food safety; this is about food fraud,” he says. “This is really damaging to the industry.”
Nixon believes large amounts of the transshipped honey is also entering the U.S. and those imports are affecting Canada’s southern market.
The Saskatoon-based Western Producer quotes Ron Phipps, a global honey expert, as saying in a report for the American Honey Producers Association that with both Thailand and Ukraine, the number of hives and level of beekeeping activity does not justify the quantity of honey exported.
“A review of Thailand’s honey trade over the past 10 years reveals a correlation between sharp increases in export and increases of imports of honey from China and its surrogates,” Phipps wrote.