COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Honey lovers likely aren't getting what they pay for in stores, according to Vaughn Bryant, a Texas A&M anthropology professor who is lobbying legislators to put stronger restrictions on imported honey.
"Suppose you went to a restaurant and you really like fine wines and you went to the wine list and there was a wine bottled in France from 1992 for $200 a bottle," said Bryant, who is considered an expert on honey. "You want to impress your friends so you order it. Suppose that it really came from the Napa Valley and it was bottled last year.
"Why would you want to buy that? It's the same thing with honey. What's in the bottle can be junk. You just can't be sure."
Years ago, Bryant said he was asked by the federal government to test honey samples by tracking down pollen types to essentially determine the origin. He found that 6 percent of the samples were not from the U.S. What this means for consumers, he said, is they aren't always getting what they pay for.
"There was some cheating going on," Bryant told The Eagle of Bryan-College Station .
In studying samples from grocery stores, natural food stores and farmers markets across the nation, Bryant found more than 75 percent of the honey sold has been stripped of pollen.
"The problem is that once you take the pollen out, you have no idea where it came from or what the sources were that produced it," he said. "The problem with that is there are some countries that use pesticides, or antibiotics to protect the bees. If you don't know what country it comes from, you don't know what's in it."
The FDA does not require pollen to be in the honey sold in the U.S., making it easier for companies to purchase inexpensive honey with no pollen, without knowing where it came from.
Bryant is pushing for U.S. Senate bill 662, customs reauthorization legislation that would put stricter requirements on honey production to ensure its origin, and compel sellers to label it accordingly. Knowing origins of honey is essential for accurate pricing, Bryant said, and for determining what standards were used in making it, as different countries have different production methods.
Gilbert Schorlemmer, a local beekeeper and government professor at Blinn College, said purchasing honey is often an assumption on the consumer's part that the product is of good quality.
Locally produced honey is usually the best bet for a top-notch product, Schorlemmer said.
"It's generally better," he said. "I think for the consumer, they need more information. They need to know what we are getting."
Schorlemmer said he became interested in beekeeping after looking into colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees began to abruptly disappear from a hive.
One of many reasons for their disappearance, he said, is the varroa mite, a parasite that attaches to a bee and weakens it by sucking its internal fluid.
"There is a significant number of beekeepers who use pesticides in their hives," Schorlemmer said. "The intention is to address the varroa mite problem. We think that healthy bees make better honey, so we are a hands-off, nonpesticide, organic honey producer."
The problems in honey production are more than just domestic, he said.
"A big external threat is that a significant amount of adulterated honey is coming from China. There's a big debate on how to address it," Schorlemmer said. "The European Union is dealing with it as well. What we're seeing is basically high-fructose corn syrup that's colored like honey ... If you clear the honey of pollen, is it still honey?"
Though there's no way for a consumer to truly know what's in or what's not in their honey, Schorlemmer said the color of natural honey will change with the seasons.
"The spring is a lighter, golden, clearer color and the fall is much darker, almost molasses in color with a thicker, robust taste."
Just as some people enjoy inexpensive wine, Bryant said there will be people who buy cheap honey and have no preference on quality.
But if beekeepers in the U.S. can no longer profit from their business, Bryant said, there will be fewer bees and hives, leading to increased food prices due to inadequate pollination.