Last updated: September 2014
Pollen, GMOs and Chinese honey laundering
Ethical Consumer investigates the implications of a change in the European Honey Directive
In May 2014, the Council of the European Union changed the Honey Directive in such a way that now, when honey becomes contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), consumers will not have the right to know. This change involved reclassifying pollen from an ingredient to a constituent of honey, thereby eliminating any requirement which may arise to label honey as containing GMOs if the GM content of the pollen rises above 0.9%.
European consumers have been provided with three key assurances with regard to GM food generally: Effective co-existence measures exist, so GM free will remain a choice GM labelling enables consumers to make informed choices Unless specific GM foods are approved as safe, consumers won’t end up eating them. This framework disintegrates when it comes to honey.
Bees are the species that render the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops in the same area impossible. In addition to the problem of GM crops spreading as a result of bees carrying GM pollen is the contamination of honey itself. Bees travel considerable distances. It is estimated that hives should be kept 5-10 kilometres away from GM crops to prevent honey contamination, but the co-existence distance typically employed in Europe is tens of metres.
Foodstuffs containing GM ingredients are usually tested for safety before they are approved for growing. There are significant problems with the testing regime (see EC 141), but safety testing of GM pollen and honey is non-existent.
Swedish beekeepers alerted the European Court of Justice to this issue in 2011: “None of the existing approvals for any GMOs in food and feed include an approval for placing pollen on the market. Nor have any food/feed safety or environmental risk assessments of pollen been carried out.” 
This is worrying given the fact that GM crops are grown not only for human consumption but also for pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds. China is the largest honey importer into Europe and the types of GM crops being developed there are, to some degree, unknown. The extent to which the change in the Honey Directive will impact on how rigorously honey imports are assessed and monitored is unclear.
According to Walter Haefeker, President of the European Professional Beekeepers Association: “The trickery by the Commission has created enormous uncertainty for the honey labs, because the Commission made assertions about how honey should be tested which are completely inconsistent with any other guidelines on GMOs. Labs have told me that they are no longer sure how to properly do the analysis.”
Pollen and fraud
Pollen is unlikely to be more than 0.5% of the content of honey, but it is a crucial percentage: “Without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources”, according to Food Safety News.
Through traditional filtration of honey, bee parts, wax and debris from hives are removed. In the USA the process of ‘ultrafiltration’ is permitted, which can also remove up to 100% of the pollen content of honey. This has led to a proliferation in the trade of ‘fake’ honey made, for example, from high fructose corn syrup.
The removal of pollen has also allowed China to allegedly dump millions of dollars worth of (sometimes contaminated) honey on to the US market illegally,  laundering it through third countries to avoid import duties.
Food Safety News conducted testing in 2011 and found that up to 75% of honey sold in the USA was not real honey. They concluded that, “the main problem is that FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] simply will not define honey as containing pollen and, therefore, make it traceable to its country of origin... FDA’s ‘guidance’ says that honey is a ‘single ingredient food’.” 
Seeds of deception
In Europe, ultra-filtration is not permitted, and honey without pollen is not considered honey. But the change in the honey directive effectively makes the legislative leap into American territory, transforming honey into a single-ingredient product. It is a serious erosion of our protections as consumers. According to Liz O’Neill, Director of GM Freeze, “Every step that prevents consumers from knowing exactly what is in their food is a step nearer to having GM crops in UK fields. There is a concerted campaign to reduce resistance to GM in bite size chunks and it is more important than ever for UK consumers to stand up and say no.”
Read more about honey and GMO's >