The Truth Behind The Honey Labels: A FOX 17 Investigation

Posted at 11:01 PM, Feb 25, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-26 12:10:45-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (February 25, 2014) — “I just take, probably a little spoonful like this,” said Ying Woellhaf of Whitehall, as she stirred her tea.

Ying and husband Raymond reach for their honey jar when they want something sweet. “We try to use honey as much as possible versus refined sugar,” said Ying.

But, often the labels on that honey you’re buying may not be telling you the whole story. “This one actually says imitation honey,” said Ying, looking over a generic looking honey bear bottle at the store.

A honey bottling company headquartered in Onsted, Mich., was recently fined by the federal government for selling transshipped, mislabeled Chinese honey during a federal investigation that was called “Operation Honeygate.” Groeb Farms, now called Natural American Foods, paid a $2 million fine.

The company said the executives responsible were no longer with the company.

However, many local West Michigan beekeepers say the case points to a larger problem. Research at Texas A&M University shows that most honey labels aren’t telling the truth, and 75% of the honey in the U.S. is not what it says it is on the label. And this could apply to as much as 90% of the nation’s honey, according to lead federal honey investigator.

That’s where Dr. Vaughn Bryant comes into the picture.

He grew up in Holland, Mich., and now he works as an anthropology professor at Texas A&M. He’s also known as the “honey detective.”

Dr. Bryant says pollen is so unique in all the different plants worldwide, it can be used as a fingerprint. In his lab, he can uncover a honey’s unique “pollen print,” which reveals where it’s from.

Bryant keeps an enormous library of pollen in the lab to compare with others and unravel the mystery of a honey’s source. “We have 20,000 different types,” he said.

“When we look at a honey sample and we find certain kinds of plants, like say palm trees, we know we’re dealing in the tropics,” said Bryant.

FOX 17 wanted to know where some of the honey that sits on your West Michigan grocery store shelves comes from, because sometimes the labels just aren’t that clear, according to Bryant. So, we took some samples and and sent them to Texas A&M University. Our five samples included a bottle from the company formerly known as Groeb Farms, Honey Tree’s Michigan Great Lakes Raw Honey, Organic Rainforest honey, plus a Meijer brand and a Spartan brand.

“Most of them were not what they claimed to be,” said Bryant.

First, he looked at the honey bottled from the company formerly known as Groeb Farms. They were previously fined for mislabeling Chinese honey. The label on this particular bottle said “Pure Honey Clover.” Although Dr. Bryant said the sample wasn’t from China, he said there was still a problem with the label. “It turned out not to be clover honey.”

There was “not enough clover pollen to warrant the honey being called a unifloral clover honey,” his report said. The other flower pollens found in the honey included “soybeans, chestnut, mesquite, and eucalyptus.”

“A little bit of clover pollen in here,” said Vaughn. “But it would not qualify as clover pollen. So here’s the case where it’s sold as pure clover honey, but it’s really not.”

Onto jar number two, a jar labeled Great Lakes Raw Michigan Honey. This honey appeared much more true to form according to Dr. Bryant’s analysis. He said there was “sumac” pollen in this sample, which grows commonly in the state. “It could well be from Michigan,” said Bryant. However, a few other suspicious pollens were discovered, too, which could indicate there was other honey mixed in from southern regions, or it could simply mean that the pollen accidentally got in there some other way. Bryant’s report showed pollen from citrus:  lemon, orange, sweetgum, mesquite, eucalyptus and magnolia.

“Those could have been contamination from some other source,” said Bryant. “Or, they could have been part of a mixture. It’s hard to tell.”

Chris Olney, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Honey Tree said that the pollen from southern regions likely came from hives that were used in Florida, then brought to Michigan.  He said 50% of the hives are transported by beekeepers to southern regions like Florida to pollinate citrus crops, then they are brought back to Michigan to pollinate crops here in the summer.

Now on to sample 3, which was labeled Organic Rainforest honey. “We don’t know what it is,” said Bryant.

The label had the abbreviation “BR” on the back, which stands for Brazil. However, Bryant couldn’t prove it came from rainforest flowers. It came back from testing as a question mark, because someone had strained all the pollen out. “We have no idea whether it’s organic,” said Bryant. “We have no idea whether it’s from the rainforest or anything else.”

Sample 4, the Meijer Pure Clover honey, had stamps for USA, Canada, and Argentina on the label, but for Bryant, it remains a question mark because, according to the test, “all of the pollen has been removed.”

Sample 5, the Spartan premium golden honey had the markings of “AR” and “CA” stamped on the back. AR stands for Argentina according to country code listings, and CA stands for Canada. However, Bryant couldn’t prove where this sample was from either country. “One certainly could not prove that the contents of this honey is what is claimed on the label.”

We can’t say for sure what’s happening with our samples.

Bryant points out in past cases of illegal honey shipping, unscrupulous honey dealers have filtered out the pollen on purpose so illegally shipped honey can come into the country untraceable to its source.

“The United States does not have any affecting labeling laws,” said Bryant.

Some individual states have made their own stricter labeling laws, but the Michigan Department of Agriculture says, “Michigan does not have specific labeling requirements for where honey comes from.”

The honey mystery can also involve other foods that use honey, such as cereal. We tried to find out if Battle Creek-based Kellogg’s uses foreign or domestic sourced honey, but they wouldn’t reveal any information. They only said, “Details of our supply chain are confidential.”

“What we really need to do is get our federal government to start policing this whole thing,” said Bryant.

Meanwhile, Ying Woellhaf feels the best option for now is to buy from a local beekeeper, an actual person that you can call on the phone and perhaps even visit their hives. “This one is actually right from Ludington,” Ying said of her favorite brand. “It’s always smart to know what you’re feeding yourself and your kids.”

A trade bill in the U.S. Senate, 662, would help the government better police honey coming into the country, but it is still in the finance committee, .

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow sits on that committee. FOX 17 put a call into her office to see if she is supporting the legislation. No official word back as of newstime Tuesday.