If you’re one of those who rolls your eyes at talk of the importance of ‘transparency’ in the food system, a couple of studies released over the past few weeks, one on honey laundering and one on fish fraud, might make you reconsider.
Food Safety News has produced a study that shows a vast majority of store-bought honey has had all of its pollen removed through intensive processing, meaning it isn’t actually honey. Once the pollen has been removed, it makes the ‘honey’ virtually untraceable, which means there’s no way to know where, or how, the product is produced.
Who cares, you ask? This is a problem because of the prevalence of ‘honey laundering’ – the practice by which honey from Asia, tainted with illegal, carcinogenic antibiotics and heavy metals is relabeled to obscure its provenance and then illegally sold to North American wholesalers and food manufacturers. Food Safety News reported in August that the U.S. imports 52% of the honey consumed here. Of that imported honey, 60% comes from Asia, the clearinghouse for tainted honey.
Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told Food Safety News:
“‘I don’t know of any U.S. producer that would want to do that. Elimination of all pollen can only be achieved by ultra-filtering and this filtration process does nothing but cost money and diminish the quality of the honey,’ Jensen said.
“‘In my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it’s even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law,’ he added.”
WTF? Seriously? If you want to keep eating honey, you might want to spend a little time getting to know who produced it, where it’s from, and a little something about their beekeeping practices. There has been a big increase in the number of beekeepers producing honey in New York City since City Hall legalized the practice last year, and you can find local honey at many of the borough’s provisions shops and Greenmarkets. (See our conversation with Michael Hedegus of Three Sister’s Honey for more on Brooklyn beekeepers).
The second sigh-inducing news of the week: more findings on ‘fish fraud.’ The New York Times reported last spring on studies finding that seafood fraud (the selling of a cheap fish as a more desirable, and more expensive relative, or the selling of overfished species as plentiful ones) is happening with alarming frequency everywhere from supermarkets to restaurant tables.
Now, The Boston Globe has published the results of its investigatation into fish fraud in the Boston area. The Globe collected 183 fish samples from 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets and had them analyzed by a DNA lab. The results? 48% of the samples were fraudulent – one kind of fish being sold as another. Not only does that mean you might be paying local flounder prices for Vietnamese catfish –it means that Chatham Cod you thought you were eating might actually have been ‘indigestion’-inducing escolar (which is actually banned in Japan).
And here’s the kicker:
“Identifying fish consumed in New England used to be easy because it usually didn’t travel far – local fishermen sold their catches to local stores and restaurants. But advances in fish-freezing technology and transportation allow grocers and chefs to sell seafood from all over the world…The long supply chain increases the opportunities for mislabeling between the catch and dinner plate.”
What can you do? Know your fish. Ask questions so you can make informed choices. Shorten your supply chain by getting some friends together to buy fish direct from fishermen through Sea to Table, sign up for Iliamna Fish Company‘s annual CSA (Brooklynite Christopher Nicolson fishes wild Alaskan sockeye salmon each summer with his family and ships a portion of the catch back to Brooklyn), buy at the Greenmarket from local fishermen caught the fish they’re selling. And if you’re eating out, avoid anything labeled “Red Snapper”– the Globe found 24 restaurants selling Red Snapper that wasn’t, and it’s on the Seafood Watch’s “avoid” list anyway.
Not convinced? Here’s more on the problem with imported fish – it’s true provenance is impossible to trace, which leads to the growth in fish piracy and other unsavory practices.