09 November 2011

Your Mead or Honey Beer May Not Have Honey In It UPDATED

From Food Safety News:

More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn't exactly what the bees produce, according to testing done exclusively for Food Safety News.

The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled "honey."
The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world's food safety agencies.

The food safety divisions of the  World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that's been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn't honey. However, the FDA isn't checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.

Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey. It is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey - some containing illegal antibiotics - on the U.S. market for years.
Food Safety News decided to test honey sold in various outlets after its earlier investigation found U.S. groceries flooded with Indian honey banned in Europe as unsafe because of contamination with antibiotics, heavy metal and a total lack of pollen which prevented tracking its origin.
 If you're a mead or honey beer enthusiast, or simply care about your sweetners, read the whole thing.

How concerned should we be about this?  It's a good question.  On the one hand, the presence or lack of pollen hardly has any actual effect on the actual quality or flavor of the final product.  If you're enough of a brewer that you're discriminating between orange blossom and buckwheat honeys, this probably doesn't apply to you.  On the other hand, the recent catastrophic price increases in honey have no doubt spurred much of the above behavior--five-gallon (typically 60-pound) buckets of honey that cost under a hundred dollars a dozen years ago now cost in excess of $250.

The Bee Folks, a Mount Airy, Md. apiary that is often seen at festivals and Renaissance Festivals, posted the following on their Facebook page:

The Bee Folks strains the honey. We use a gravity filter that catches the crunchy bits (beeswax, bees, extraction debris). We can filter down to 100 microns on a gravity filter (a remarkable amount of pollen still gets through, we can see it in the honey), but we typically use something between 200-600 microns.

The major US packers filter their honey under heat and pressure. Done correctly, it has minimal effect on the flavor. However, it kills the natural enzymatic activity, and removes the majority of particulates. Why? Primarily, because particulates, such as crystallized honey, pollen granules, etc, encourage crystallization of the honey. The average American prefers crystal-clear honey. (I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that they threw out honey because it had "gone bad" and "turned solid".) If the honey crystallizes on the shelf of the grocery store, the store views it as an unsalable product, and throws it out. Therefore, to "extend the shelf life" of honey, all particulates are removed. Also, the USDA grades honey by color and clarity. By removing particulates by filtering under heat and pressure, the packer gets a higher USDA rating, and can fetch a higher price for table honey.

The Chinese are are well-known for ultra-filtering. They add water to honey, run it through 1 micron filters, then dehydrate it. This is what the FDA referred to in the letter. The intent is to hide the country of origin by removing all traces of pollen, and to remove or mask the presence of antibiotics and fillers. This is supposed to be called a honey product, but not sold as actual honey. However, you don't get as high a price for a "honey product", so the Chinese call it honey, ship it to India or Vietnam, relabel it as Indian or Vietnamese honey, and ship it into the US.
UPDATE:  More on how to avoid tainted honey.  Glad to see my only remaining mass-commercial source for any sort of honey receives a passing grade.

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