Contaminated Chinese Honey Seized at U.S. Ports

WASHINGTON, DC, August 28, 2002 (ENS) - Some bulk imports of Chinese honey into the United States are contaminated with low levels of a potentially harmful antibiotic and an unapproved food additive, an investigation by the U.S. Customs Service and the Food and Drug Administration has found. Officials have detained more than 50 containers of bulk Chinese honey at U.S. ports.


A U.S. Customs Inspector checks seaport containers as they are unloaded from a ship at the Port of Miami. (Photo courtesy U.S. Customs)
Some of the bulk honey in the confiscated containers has tested positive for chloramphenicol, an antibiotic used only to treat life threatening infections in humans when other alternatives are not available. Food and animal feed products containing chloramphenicol are illegal in the United States.

Use of chloramphenicol is limited because it is associated with a rare, but potentially life threatening side effect - idiosyncratic aplastic anemia. For the small number of susceptible people, exposure to chloramphenicol could be serious, and a safe limit of the antibiotic for such people has not been established.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is "unaware" of contaminated honey being on retail shelves, but investigation is ongoing. To date, no illnesses have been reported from eating the imported honey. FDA officials said today that the probability of this reaction occurring in the general population from food exposure is "very low."

"We will continue to work with our federal and international partners to ensure that products that cross our borders meet our high standards for food safety," said FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford. "The FDA will take whatever action is necessary to protect the public health from these kinds of activities."

The contaminated honey was detected during an investigation into a widespread scheme to evade payment of U.S. anti-dumping duties on bulk imports of Chinese honey. During the past week, Customs and FDA agents have executed search warrants on businesses and homes in Los Angeles, Newark, Tampa, Houston, Detroit, and Seattle.


Chinese honey after packaging (Photo credit unknown)
Dumping of a product occurs when merchandise manufactured outside of the United States is sold in the U.S. at a price below the cost of production, or below the price sold in the foreign market or origin.

In September 2000, several U.S. honey producers filed an unfair trade case alleging dumping of honey imports from China. In May 2001, the U.S. Commerce Department issued an order requiring U.S. Customs to collect anti-dumping duties on honey imported from certain Chinese companies. The duty rates increased between 34 and 184 percent.

Soon after, the U.S. Customs Attaché in Bangkok, Thailand received information that some honey exports from China were allegedly being illegally transshipped through Thailand en route to the United States to get around payment of anti-dumping duties.

In June 2002, U.S. Customs Attachés in Bangkok and Singapore launched an investigation and began working with their law enforcement counterparts in Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand.


U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner (Photo courtesy U.S. Customs)
"This investigation should serve notice that U.S. Customs will not tolerate unfair trading practices, especially those that pose potential health risks to the American public," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner. "This case is an excellent example of cooperation between U.S. Customs, the FDA, as well as authorities in Australia, Thailand, and Malaysia."

Customs officials are stopping all suspect bulk honey imports to the United States for the FDA to determine whether they contain chloramphenicol. Any shipments containing chloramphenicol will be detained.