3 Aug 2016

Honey, sweet honey, what are you?

                  Exclusive Book Excerpt: Honey Is World's
                                 Third Most Faked Food
                      by Larry Omsted, from Forbes.com

The very notion of what “honey” is seems obvious. It is not.

Four years ago I wrote about one of the food world’s priciest scams, Kobe Beef. Consumers were outraged over the blatant restaurant rip-off, and that became the most read story out of hundreds that have appeared here, with over 1.5 million readers to date. But as it turned out, Faux-be beef was just the tip of a vast Fake Food iceberg.

My new book Real Food, Fake Food (Algonquin) covers the gamut of food frauds and scams American consumers face today. It also celebrates the greatness of the world’s best Real Foods and explains how to get them.

For my new book Real Food, Fake Food, I have spent the last few years crisscrossing the country and the globe, visiting food producers and counterfeiters, restaurants of every ilk, and meeting with experts in all sorts of related fields. What I came to realize was that just as designer handbags and high priced Swiss watches are targeted by counterfeits, so are the world’s greatest Real Foods, from champagne to caviar to lobster. In many cases, Americans consumers, even food lovers, have simply never tasted the Real things. I want readers to avoid rip-offs, but even more, I want them to celebrate how delicious and wholesome the world’s Real Foods can be.

Unfortunately, it’s not just luxury foodstuffs that get knocked off. Many household staples, from juice to honey to coffee, are routinely faked. The following never before published excerpt from my new book Real Food, Fake Food (Algonquin) explains how the golden honey bear in your cabinet may be deceiving you.

EXCERPT: Foods that can’t be differentiated by sight will often be faked, and honey fills the bill. But honey has other problems as well, with the pirates on one side and regulators on the other. For starters, while we know for sure there is plenty of obviously fake honey, no one agrees on what the real thing is.

The American Beekeeping Federation is the industry group representing U.S. producers of non-ultrafiltered honey. They petitioned the FDA to create a “standard of identity” for honey (basically, a detailed definition that sets legal standards). As with similar appeals for an olive oil standard, the FDA summarily denied this request. While it told the federation that it shared their “concerns about adulterated and misbranded honey,” regulators chose to defer to Webster’s, literally, citing the dictionary’s definition as adequate: “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.”

That sounds like honey to me, which is part of the problem.  Like most consumers, I don’t know a whole lot about the intricacies of honey. The position of the American Beekeeping Federation is that real honey must have pollen, but lots of other domestic honey producers disagree and ultrafilter theirs to remove the pollen, which helps keeps the product from crystallizing. In Europe, most consumers are used to honey is this original state, but Americans vote with their dollars for the more liquid filtered version, sans pollen but with nothing necessarily added. I say “necessarily” because pollen is a fingerprint for honey that can be tested to show where the plants the bees visited lived and prove country of origin.

One legitimate fear is that countries like China use the ultra-filtration or ultra-purification processes to mask the origin of the honey, which is then trans-shipped [sent to an intermediate country and re-labelled as a product of that country to disguise its real origin] and sometimes mixed with a small amount of pollinated honey, from say India, to throw off testers. Sometimes Chinese honey is cut with much cheaper corn syrup or fructose syrup to enhance profit margins, and sometimes Chinese producers even feed corn syrup to the bees to get it into the honey more “naturally.” The importation of Chinese honey was specifically banned because it is so often adulterated.

Unlike the FDA, the USDA has chosen to get more precise about what honey is—sort of. They created a voluntary grading system that lets producers slap Grade A, Grade B, or Grade C on their labels, with zero enforcement. Sound familiar? The USDA did the same thing with olive oil grades, leading pretty much every producer to choose the highest extra-virgin grade designation, regardless of what was in the bottle. In this case, the USDA created very detailed honey grading rules—and lets them all be ignored. The formula scores five specific elements like moisture content and “absence of defects,” but the grading rules skip vitally important factors, such as whether non-honey ingredients (such as corn syrup) can be added. Additionally, honey and maple syrup are in a special category, and unlike almost every other product it regulates, the USDA allows the use of its grading marks without any inspections, ever (oil is theoretically subject to inspection, though it almost never is). As the Federal Register reads, “Honey does not require official inspection in order to carry official USDA grade marks and . . . there are no existing programs that require the official inspection and certification of honey.” Enforcement is based solely on responding to complaints.

Honey-obsessed website Honey Traveller concluded, “Two honeys could be legally graded as Grade A honey and be identically labelled as, ‘100% Organic Clover Honey from Arizona—USDA Grade A’ yet be entirely different honeys. They could be a blend of honeys from all over the world, some heated to 180 degrees to make it easy to filter, contain antibiotics, chemicals, and corn syrup, not made from Clover at all nor actually be from plants in Arizona!” While this is often the case, the site’s claim is not entirely accurate, because there is a legal standard for the term organic in agricultural products, including honey. However, actual organic production of honey is almost impossible for producers to control because bees roam freely and choose plants that may or may not have been organically farmed. Also, “100%” is a widely misused food label term that often means a particular ingredient, not the entire produce, is 100 percent something.

But the bottom line is that legal or not, “you may be paying more for honey labelled ‘certified organic’ or feel reassured by the ‘USDA Grade A’ seal, but the truth is, there are few federal standards for honey, no government certification and no consequences for making false claims. For American-made honey, the ‘organic’ boast, experts say, is highly suspect,” noted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Major supermarkets offer dozens of different brands, sizes, types and flavours of honey for sale. Consumers might walk away with the finest-tasting, highest-quality honey there is. Or they could end up with an unlabelled blend, adulterated with impossible-to-detect cheap sweeteners or illegal antibiotics.” Suddenly that innocent plastic bear on your table sounds like lots of other Fake Foods.

There are debates over whether or not pollen makes the honey healthier and/or tastier, so your definition of real honey depends on which side of this divide you are on. But in either case, most consumers expect real honey to contain just honey, whether filtered or not. But when the FDA opened a comment phase in 2014 on proposed draft guidelines that may someday exist, one question was whether to bar honey cut with other sweeteners from calling itself honey. If such regulation passed, it still might not stem the tide, since honey is an easily faked and expensive product that’s mostly sugar. Reports of widespread counterfeit honey, made with glucose and just enough actual honey to give it flavour, plus the occasional body parts of bees to make it look authentic, date to at least 1881.

The rare and prized manuka honey, about the priciest kind, comes from bees visiting the manuka bush, found only in New Zealand and a small part of Australia, an excellent example of terroir. Fans believe it is both healthier and better tasting than all other honeys. It certainly costs a lot more. A 2014 investigation in the United Kingdom, where manuka honey is especially popular, found that just one of seven brands in supermarkets labelled as such was the real thing. According to a comprehensive overview of Fake Foods published in the Journal of Food Science and co-authored by Dr. John Spink, director of the Michigan State University Food Fraud Initiative, honey is the third most faked food in the world. And Americans buy and eat more honey than anyone, nearly four hundred million pounds every year. Much of the fake stuff ends up in processed “honey” flavoured foods.

The FDA’s honey guy, Martin Stutsman, who also “monitors” olive oil, told USA Today that cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup used to be most commonly used to thin honey. But an isotope test easily spotted this adulteration, so savvy counterfeiters switched to beet sugar, with a chemical profile much more similar to honey. The FDA, in turn, switched to a much more complicated, multistep test. “But once we started catching people, they create a moving target. They’ll switch to something more difficult (to detect),” said Stutsman.

At least honeys cut with sugar substitutes like corn syrup and beet sugar aren’t poisonous. That’s not the case with chloramphenicol, a powerful antibiotic that can lead to a potentially fatal bone marrow disorder, the reason the drug is not is not approved for food use in the United States. But it is a common contaminant in adulterated Chinese honey. While the import of Chinese honey is banned, its price difference is big enough to make it worthwhile for smugglers to relabel and trans-ship. This can be big business for organized criminals, not just a few jars in the lining of a suitcase. One German honey distributor did this kind of illegal trans-shipment for seven years, obscuring and importing some eighty million dollars’ worth of banned and sometimes adulterated Chinese honey into the United States be- fore getting caught. “Chinese honey was often harvested early and dried by machine rather than bees,” reported Businessweek. “This allowed the bees to produce more honey, but the honey often had an odour and taste similar to sauerkraut. Fan [a worker] was told to mix sugar and syrup into the honey in Taiwan to dull the pungent flavour.” Just as with the trans-shipped banned Chinese shrimp that went via Indonesia—also contaminated with dangerous and for- bidden drugs—investigators noticed a sudden spike in honey imports from Indonesia, Malaysia, and India after banning Chinese honey. The scam was so large that honey exports suddenly totalled more than those three countries produce annually, combined. Ac- cording to Businessweek, this operation was the single largest incident of food fraud in our country’s history. More accurately, it is the largest case where someone actually got caught.

What’s especially sad is that it is easy to buy real honey, made by small producers all around the country, and widely available at farmers’ markets and gourmet stores. By simply avoiding big supermarket brands and buying it from someone who makes it locally, you should be safe.
Excerpted from Real Food, Fake Food by Larry Olmsted, published by Algonquin Books.

26 Oct 2015

The flow hive - take 3

There were two posts on the famous flow hive.  Today at 8PM there will be a program on ABC TV about the inventor(s) and the product.  We had a chance to see the item at our last meeting (thank you Barry) and I would like to submit my current comments before today's program.

When I initially have heard about the flow hive, I thought that it is just a silly gimmick.  The moronic YouTube promos enforced this view.  A hive full of honey but no bees, honey flowing in the open to open jars with no bee in sight - this cannot be real.  The idea promoted there - just crank the handle and honey flows freely, beekeeping is easy - sounded preposterous if not outright dangerous - for the bees and the "flow beekeeper".

Close look at the concept showed that there is more to it that initially met the eye.  It is being promoted in a reasonable way.  The package on offer consists of a proper brood box Langstroth style with 8 normal frames supporting free comb, not foundation (who would think - it is natural beekeeping!), base, excluder, the "flow super", top mat and a roof.  The package has been assembled by someone who knows a bit about beekeeping.  The accompanying videos now show real hives with bees inside and harvest where honey is safely kept separate from any bees around.

It became clear to me that the flow hive is not a bee keeping concept, it is a honey harvesting concept.  The only item of new is the flow super.  There is no flow hive, there is only a flow super as a replacement for honey supers.

If it works over time and in the right hands (on this later), it may be a sensible proposition.  The design itself impressed me from an engineer's point of view.  It is clear from many details that the design is a product of many seasons and many trials and tests.  It is an impressive design where care has been taken of larger and smaller details.  Covering small but important details is a sign of good, thoughtful design.  Some design aspects puzzle me - they seem to result from some sort of experiences and knowledge that is not random.  It is even more intriguing by the fact that I could not see reasons behind details that are seemingly of importance.  Impressive indeed - from an engineer's point of view.

Now for a beekeeper point of view.  Michael Bush, a seasoned practitioner and highly regarded by many, myself including, gave the product his seal of approval.  I am not the one to dismiss Michael's opinion lightly.  Still, I am not quick to jump on the bandwagon.  I would like to see that it works well over a few seasons - the design may be prone to clogging by wax or propolis, some other issues may emerge.

One aspect of the flow hive worries me most - their marketing angle.  I can see that an experienced beekeeper who knows what he/she is doing can save lots of time at harvest.  Such a beekeeper would know when is the right time to crank the handle and would know that there is more to bee husbandry than harvesting.  However, the flow hive seems to be marketed primarily to beginners and bee ignorants.  You get the whole package - from the base board to the roof, just install and crank whenever you feel like it.  Easy peasy, everyone can be a beekeeper now.  This is dangerous - for the bees and for decent beekeepers.  I can see backyards filed with flow hives that spread swarms around, feed SHB and generally suffer in inexperienced hands tempted by slick videos and cranking the handle at wrong times and to the detriment of the bees.  I hope that I am just a pessimistic old geezer.

I am surprised that the marketing is not directed more at professionals for whom time savings may justify the investment.  Maybe price is too high at the moment, maybe professionals are reluctant to jump into deep water.  They surely know that harvesting is just a small part of beekeeping and the cost is not justifiable.  Knowledgeable professional would be able to use the flow box without causing any collateral damage to the whole hive.

What is the future of the flow hive?  I think that it will stay around but in what segment of the beekeeping world - hard to say now.  Only time will tell.  I am not tempted, I will wait and see.

I will see what the 8PM program shows and if I see something that can be added to the above, I will do it.  I also warmly invite others to contribute to the discussion.  The more opinions the better.

Andrew, at 7:10 PM

25 Apr 2015

Small hive beetle - the clear and present danger

Small hive beetles (SHB) had arrived in Victoria.  Actually they did arrive some time ago but they get more visible over time.

SHB seem to be the gift of Olympics 2000.  First detected in 2001 around Newcastle, it since spread over NSW and Qld.  It favours warm and moist climate so it was slow to move south, but now it is in Victoria.  If you see inside or outside a hive a black beetle the size of a ladybird - this is it.

When SHB overwhelm a hive, they makes the bee colony abscond, looking for a better place.  In USA it is called "September swarming", as it usually happens in the second part of the year.  On 13 April I have received a call to remove a bee swarm.  I could not believe it - bees DO NOT swarm in Melbourne in April, but the caller sounded knowledgeable and was insistent.  I went there and here it was - a proper swarm on a roof, with scouts etc.  SHB are the only explanation I can think of.

USA beekeepers from southern states claim that for them SHB are worse than varroa.

I have no direct experience with SHB, but I saw them already in a few hives.  No losses as yet. Here is the summary of a search on available SHB info:

1. SHB can easily enter hives, bees cannot stop them even if they try.  Indeed they do their best but to no avail.

2. Once beetles are in, bees have no natural way of removing them.  They cannot kill them, they cannot kick them out.  Conclusion - beetle numbers in hives tend to grow over time with no natural limiting factor in sight.  This is really scary!!!

3. Bees chase the beetles, try to contain them in tight spots ("beetle jails") and keep them there.  They can do it, but then the beetles have sneaky ways to make bees feed them.  Keeping beetles in check keeps a number of bees away from useful work and may be a feasible strategy only up to a point.

4. Beetles themselves do not cause any damage but if a number of them lay eggs, the larvae quickly overwhelm the hive and turn it into a slimy stinking mess.

5. Hive inspections and manipulations cause general chaos and let beetles get out of jails.  This often allows them to lay eggs and to bring down the hive.  Another possible trigger for a catastrophe is if the number of beetles inside is simply too high for bees to control.

SHB are claimed to be of little concern to beekeeping in Africa, where they came from.  African bees are known to have the tendency to abscond at a drop of a hat - maybe this is their way to shake off beetles and limit SHB damage?

 These are the known strategies to fight SHB or at least minimize damage:

- beetle trapping outside hives.  Traps resemble wasp traps.

- denial of hive entry by hive design, with or without trapping, see www.beetlejail.com.  Also alternative designs may be possible, taking advantage of differences in bee and beetle size and legs length.

- beetle trapping at the hive entrance.  For current designs refer Mrs. Google.

- beetle trapping inside the hive.  Numerous traps are on the market, again refer Mrs. Google.  Traps require periodical emptying.  Some traps allow emptying from outside, some require hive opening.  Overall efficacy of traps is unknown at this time.  Traps are unlikely to get all the beetles and the question is - to what degree the beetles not trapped are capable of bringing a hive down.

Possible additional strategies:

- hive designs that leave no room for beetles to hide.  Langstroth hives seem to be a beetle paradise with numerous small tight spots.

- floor mesh with openings large enough for beetles to be pushed out.  If it works, this may allow bees to remove beetles and bees indeed try to do it.  However, it may work only if beetles cannot enter a hive from below.  Beetles can land on a horizontal surface and most likely on a vertical one as well, but surely not upside down.  It is unclear whether they could walk upside down on a reasonably smooth surface.  Possibly metal or plastic may not offer enough for beetles to hold on to so a bottom mesh say #6 (3.5 mm opening) with metal/plastic collar may just do the job.

The above is just a summary of what I could gather so far.  The April swarm really made me worry.  Please comment if you can.  If you have more information, please send a message.  Let's tackle the problem jointly.