Can you tell I am so ready for spring? These simple springtime-inspired honey lemon cookies helped ease the craving for warm weather, buds opening in the gardens and on trees, and baby animals frolicking (I’m nostalgic for the chicks and foals every year on my parents’ ranch back in Texas during my childhood). I also used this cookie recipe as an excuse to dig into honey contamination, adulteration, and smuggling . . . which I was mostly ignorant of until researching tips for purchasing quality honey to include in this article.
Try this small experiment: Google “illegal Chinese honey”, filter for search results in the past year, and you’ll get pages detailing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seizures of hundreds of tons of illegal Chinese honey as a result of foiled smuggling attempts just in the most recent twelve months.
A tariff has been imposed on Chinese honey entering the United States since 2008 when the U.S. Commerce Department determined that Chinese-origin honey was being sold in the United States at less than fair market value. Immediately after the tariff was first put into place there was a steep decline of honey originating from China, but before long, honey began flooding in from countries that hadn’t traditionally been big producers. The honey is “laundered” by being sent to an intermediate country and relabeled as a product of that country to disguise its true origin.
A percentage of honey on the shelves of major supermarkets is likely smuggled into the country under false labeling, and subjected to an ultra-filtration process to remove any organic markers such as pollen that that would betray its geographic origins. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations department:
“Food fraud is a growing epidemic across all types of products. From seafood to vintage wines to honey, food products with any economic value are being intentionally adulterated, smuggled, or simply misrepresented by knowing participants to maximize profits.”
Honey smuggling into the United States is more difficult to police because the ultra-filtration process used to disguise Chinese honey is also the method commonly used by domestic producers to prevent crystallization (a common result of pollen) and to achieve the clear, liquid, clarified product that U.S. consumers overwhelmingly prefer. Ultra-filtration is therefore not a reliable way to tell whether the honey has been laundered.
There is no FDA-mandated definition of honey. According to its draft guidelines for the industry, honey is “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs” and the FDA combines this “common usage” with existing legislation—specifically 402(b)(1) through 402(b)(4) of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act)—to stipulate that:
“A food is adulterated if a valuable constituent has been omitted in whole or in part from a food, or if any substance has been substituted wholly or in part, or if damage or inferiority has been concealed in any manner, or if a substance has been added to a food so as to increase its bulk or weight, reduce its quality or strength, or make it appear to be better or of greater value than it is.”
Whew! While this seems a bit loose and roundabout, the FDA does have enforceable authority to protect consumers against honey adulterated with such things as sugar and corn syrup under the FD&C Act since these additives are not included in the “common usage” definition of honey. That being said, testing honey for adulteration is an expensive, multi-step process conducted on only a small percentage of honey consumed yearly in the United States . . . so information is limited on what percentage of honey on grocery store shelves is truly pure.
Honey may be polluted by pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria, antibiotics, and radioactive materials (source). There are no standardized maximum residue levels (MRLs) of these contaminants in bee products, including honey. While it is common to see “produced without the use of antibiotics” on meat packaging, for example, there is no such assurance where honey is concerned. Labeling of honey should be supported by an analysis that confirms its provenance and safety, but that isn’t the reality. Bees are wide-ranging foragers, so contamination of honey is a trickle-down effect of contaminants and pollutants in the general environment.
Bottom line and a quick rule of thumb: to avoid smuggling, adulterating, or contamination, seek out honey produced with 1) transparent business practices and traceability from 2) bees verifiably inhabiting remote or protected habitats with a higher likelihood of environmental purity.
To celebrate responsibly-sourced honey, I created this special cassava flour Springtime Honey Lemon Cookies recipe. I decorated them with lemon zest and a very simple lemon-honey frosting. If you skip the frosting, they’re a little crumbly, a little sweet (next time I may include a teaspoon of lemon zest into the cookie dough itself because I love the combination of lemon and honey almost too much). Lemon Lovers Anonymous, here I come.
Also, may I show off my honey spoon? Look at that fat bee climbing into the flower! I got this at a specialty shop here in San Francisco and it’s perfect for this recipe.
Mix the coconut oil, honey, and egg yolks until foamy. Mix in flours and salt.
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a cookie sheet and set it aside.
Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper to a 1/4″ thickness. Make shapes using a cookie cutter, then transfer them to the greased cookie sheet.
Bake 7-10 minutes until browned and firm. Set aside to cool.
To make the frosting, whip the shortening, honey, and lemon juice together until totally mixed and smooth. When the cookies have cooled, top with the frosting using a small knife or the back of a spoon. Finish with lemon zest.