FDA discovers fraud in 10% of US honey, prompting import alert
19 Dec 2022 --- The latest data released by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of imported honey, revealed that 10% of the tested samples were violative. The agency carried out the assessment as more than 70% of the honey consumed in the US is imported.
Entry of violative shipments into the US has been refused, while associated companies and products have been placed on an import alert.
Educated estimates found that food fraud affects 1% of the global food industry at a cost of about US$10-$15 billion a year, while even more recent estimates put the cost as high as US$40 billion a year.
The agency tested 144 samples of imported honey from bulk and retail shipments from 32 countries in 2021 and 2022 to identify products that contained less expensive undeclared added sweeteners, such as syrups from cane and corn.
Studies suggest that EMA of honey is prevalent, with figures as high as 13% in Canada and 14% in the European Union.
The FDA used Stable Carbon Isotope Ratio Analysis (SCIRA) to analyze the organic composition of each honey sample to determine whether the honey complied. When the agency found a subsample with carbon isotope values atypical to those of authentic honey, the agency classified the associated sample as violative/non-compliant.
The intentional omission of, removal or substitution of a valuable ingredient or part of a food is considered EMA. In addition, EMA has been committed when a substance is added to a food to make it appear better or of greater value.
EMA is not just an economic issue. Food fraud can lead to health issues and even death depending on what is added, substituted or left out. Some examples include lead poisoning from adulterated spices and allergic reactions to a hidden, substituted ingredient that contains even just one food allergen.
Estimating how frequently food fraud occurs or its exact economic impact can be hard because food fraud is designed to avoid detection.
Consumers carry the burden of cost
The purpose of the assignment was to identify products that contained undeclared added sweeteners and prevent them from being distributed in the US.
When companies add undeclared cheaper sweeteners to honey, such as syrups derived from cane, corn, rice or sugar beets – and label the product as “honey” – it lowers their production costs.
However, consumers pay the price for what is deceptively labeled as honey, with the additional profit going to the companies. This is known as food fraud, or according to the regulatory term used by the FDA, “economically motivated adulteration”.
Companies that import honey for retail sale or that use honey as an ingredient in their food manufacturing can help protect consumers by ensuring the authenticity of the honey.
In other definitions of EMA, the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act requires a resulting product to be labeled as a “blend” and not as honey and have an ingredients statement when other sweeteners are added to honey.
Routine assessment of honey
The FDA routinely assesses imported honey products to ensure accurate product labeling. The agency will continue to test honey for EMA under its import sampling and risk-based import entry screening program.
Violative samples are subject to agency action, such as recall and import refusal. When appropriate, the agency may consider pursuing criminal investigations. The FDA also collaborates with international counterparts to detect and combat EMA related to imported products, including honey.
The honey evaluated for this assignment was imported from 32 countries. About 40% of the samples originated in India and Vietnam, the top two sources of honey imported by the US in the last five years.
Expanding on guidelines
In 2018, the FDA’s “Guidance for Industry: Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products” aimed to advise the regulated industry on the proper labeling of honey and honey products in accordance with sections 402 and 403 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Accurate and consistent labeling of honey and honey products helps to ensure that honey and honey products are not adulterated or misbranded and enhances consumers’ ability to make informed choices.
By Inga de Jong
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