Contaminants in the China supply chain are making headlines again.
Earlier this month, federal marshals seized 64 drums of imported bee's honey from a Philadelphia distribution center because FDA testing of the honey showed that it contained the potent antibiotic chloramphenicol. In the United States, chloramphenical is not approved for use in food, animal feed, or food-producing animals.
The bulk honey was imported by Sweet Works Inc., of Monterey Park, California from Cheng Du Wai Yuan Bee Products Company Limited of Chengdu, China. Subsequently, it was sold to Alfred L. Wolff Inc. of Chicago, which placed it in storage.
Chloramphenicol is a potent antibiotic drug that is approved only for use in humans with serious infections when other less toxic drugs won't work. People who are sensitive to chloramphenicol can develop a type of bone marrow depression called aplastic anemia, which can be fatal.
So, why would this drug be found in honey? Antibiotics may show up in honey when beekeepers feed them to their bees. Chinese bee keepers are known to feed chloramphenicol to their bees to control certain bee diseases.
"Unapproved food additives in the U.S. food supply are of significant concern to the agency," says Michael Chappell, the FDA's acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. "The FDA took this action because of the potential serious public health effects of this product."
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), who recently called for an FDA crack down on what he described as "honey launderers" that are undermining U.S. honey producers, wants an even larger sweep of honey shipments entering the country.
"The fact that the FDA was able to move this quickly shows that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to honey laundering. We urge the FDA to do a large-scale sweep of similar shipments from China because we are sure they will find many more illegal batches of smuggled honey," Schumer says.
According to Schumer's office, in 2009, New York State's honey producers manufactured over 3 million pounds of honey, amounting to $5.3 million in sales. Recently, though, the American honey industry has been severely strained as cheap honey from China floods the U.S. market. For example, figures from the USDA show that total sales from the honey industry from 2003-2007 show a 36.4 percent decline.