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Why American Honey Importers Are Wary Of 'Turkish' Honey

An apiary on the outskirts of Chengdu, China, produces about 440 pounds of honey a day. American honey importers say they suspect the uptick in honey coming from Turkey actually originated in China. Liu Jin /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Liu Jin /AFP/Getty Images

An apiary on the outskirts of Chengdu, China, produces about 440 pounds of honey a day. American honey importers say they suspect the uptick in honey coming from Turkey actually originated in China.

Liu Jin /AFP/Getty Images

Turkey is a land of fine honey. Bees produce more of the sweet stuff in Turkey than in any other country except China. And Turkish consumers happily eat most of it themselves. Very little Turkish honey is exported. When it is, it usually commands premium prices.

But some American honey producers say they've observed something odd: cheap Turkish honey headed to the U.S. The U.S. producers think it's not really Turkish honey — and that it actually comes from a country farther to the east.

True Source Honey, the industry group, says the U.S. imported more than 4 million pounds of honey from Turkey in 2013. That's a tenfold increase, compared with three years ago.

But what really aroused suspicion was the price of that Turkish honey: only $1.27 per pound, on average. When Turkish exporters shipped honey that year to the European Union, by contrast, the price was $2.13 per pound, which is more in line with the rest of the honey market.

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What's going on? Eric Wenger, chairman of the board of the True Source Honey organization, has his suspicions because he's seen this sort of thing before.

The story starts more than a decade ago, when American beekeepers complained that cheap imports of honey from China, the world's largest honey producer, were driving them out of business. The U.S. government investigated and concluded that China was "dumping" its honey on world markets. In 2008, the U.S. imposed tough duties on Chinese honey, effectively blocking it from American shores.

In the following years, large shipments of honey suddenly started arriving from other Asian countries, such as Malaysia. Further investigations revealed that this was really Chinese honey in disguise. Several Chinese and German honey traders ended up facing criminal charges for the fraud, and the Asian sources of illicit honey dried up.

True Source Honey was set up to prevent this from happening again, and Wenger now thinks it may be. He can't prove this, but he thinks Chinese honey has found a new route to the American market through Turkey. This would explain the odd discrepancy in the prices of Turkey's exports.

Shipments to the European Union are legitimate, top-quality Turkish honey. Shipments to the U.S., on the other hand, may include illicit product from China, and exporters have to knock down their prices to unload it.

In past examples of fraud, raw honey has sometimes been traced to its source through analysis of the pollen that it contains. For instance, if the pollen is from flowers that grow in China, but not Turkey, scientists can show that the honey came from China. Wenger says that his group has not carried out such an analysis of these Turkish imports.

True Source Honey is advising importers and retailers to be skeptical of imported honey from Turkey and to consider steering clear of it altogether. It notes in a statement that U.S. companies can be prosecuted for fraud if they purchase honey that they know has been imported illegally.

Ordinary consumers, however, aren't directly affected. Even though imports from Turkey have increased dramatically, they still account for only 1 percent of U.S. honey consumption. Most honey in the U.S. is imported, much of it from Argentina, Vietnam, India, Canada and Brazil.