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Cleaning up China’s honey

Times Staff Writer

For two years, Sun Baoli has been trying to clean up the dirty honey business here. He’s been met with nasty stings from bees, but those are nothing compared with the curses and punches from their keepers.

The 52-year-old entrepreneur paid the local government about $5,000 to rent part of a nature preserve teeming with nectar-filled acacia trees. He’s been recruiting beekeepers to harvest on the grounds, and all he asks is that they follow a few simple health rules. First, no using antibiotics in their colonies; the drugs can make people sick. Second, no storing honey in metal containers; those can taint the sweet goo with toxic iron and lead.

Some 45 keepers have signed up. But many others are hostile to his efforts, which they see as a threat to their decades-old way of doing business on the cheap and making easy profits.

On Saturday night, as the first acacia flowers were starting to bloom, a gang of 15 local beekeepers ambushed Sun as he got out of his red Isuzu truck, beating him and leaving him with a mild concussion.

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“It’s going to take some time,” he said with obvious understatement.

Honey and thousands of other Chinese food products are showing up more and more on dining tables around the world. Last year, China said it exported $3.8 billion worth of food to the U.S., including vast quantities of apple juice, garlic, sausage casings, canned mushrooms and honey.

In any given month, though, U.S. customs inspectors block dozens of Chinese food shipments, including produce contaminated with banned additives and pesticides as well as seafood tainted with drugs. In the wake of the recall of pet foods that U.S. regulators say contained tainted Chinese ingredients, China’s food-safety standards have become dinner table conversation across the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration has found that some pet food was made with wheat gluten from China that contains the chemical melamine, which is used to make plastic.

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Although officials in Beijing say there is no evidence that melamine killed American pets, they moved to ban its use in food, as the U.S. does. And President Hu Jintao said China must produce more chemical-free foods and do a better job of ensuring that producers follow safety standards.

But as the honey business in this remote region in western China shows, major obstacles remain.

Even when standards have been set, making them known to millions of far-flung peasants is an enormous task. Short-term profits are so important that farmers, traders and brokers have little incentive to change old practices.

The result is a constant stream of tainted and sometimes poisonous food. Last year, duck farmers added cancer-causing Sudan dye to their animal feed to make yolks redder and bring a higher price. In 2004, baby formula missing key nutrients left 13 infants dead and hundreds ill.

In 2002, Chinese honey was blocked first by the European Union and then the United States after shipments tested positive for chloramphenicol, an antibiotic banned in foods by many countries because it has been shown to cause a potentially fatal blood condition.

Later that year, China’s Ministry of Agriculture outlawed the use of chloramphenicol in food production, and last year the Agricultural Science Assn. of China added it and nine other medicines, including penicillin, to its list of drugs prohibited from use in food.

The efforts by China helped restore shipments of honey to the West, and in 2006 exports of Chinese honey to the U.S. grew by 14% to $27.3 million. It is widely used as an ingredient in breads, cakes, barbecue sauces and jams.

But for many beekeepers, old habits die hard.

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Wang Zhonggang, 50, pitched his tent in the acacia forest here in Shaanxi province, about two hours’ drive west of Xian, a couple of weeks ago. He had 60 bright-blue boxes, each hive filled with 20,000 to 30,000 bees. Like other beekeepers in China’s west, Wang had spent the winter months in southern Sichuan province before making his way north to Fufeng for the acacia bloom.

Earlier this year, Wang says, he averted a near-disaster when his bees suddenly became lethargic and their numbers appeared to decline. The second-generation beekeeper thinks they got sick after drinking water polluted by runoff from a chemical plant.

Wang went to a local drugstore and bought 10 pinkie-size tubes of penicillin for about $1. He says he mixed the medicine with sugar water and fed it to his bees. It didn’t take long before they became active and produced honey.

Wang knew that chloramphenicol was illegal, but he said he had no idea that penicillin was another type of antibiotic and that its use also had been restricted. He says he stores the honey he collects in iron and plastic containers.

“The government doesn’t care what we do,” he said, squatting under a tree as the sun was setting over the hills of Fufeng, an area redolent of apples and peppers where residents say the annual per capita income is about $400.

Wang says he sells his honey to dealers who make their rounds in the woodlands. Some of these traders will bring antibiotics for the keepers, but it’s just as easy for beekeepers to call a local drugstore and have someone deliver chloramphenicol or other medicines they request.

“The reason these farmers use antibiotics is simple. It is very cheap and effective,” said Wang Fengzhong, an expert on China’s honey industry at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.

No one knows what percentage of Chinese beekeepers still use antibiotics. In recent years, more farmers have switched to herbal medicines, said Li Chaohui, vice general manager of Huakang Foreign Trade Honey Product Co. in Fufeng. Li says his company collects honey from local farmers and sells it to factories along China’s coast, which are supposed to test for contaminants, filter the honey and package and label it for export.

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Li thinks 30% of Chinese honey comes from bees treated with antibiotics, but Sun Baoli believes the figure is as high as 70%.

Sun bases his estimate on the number of beekeepers he turns away because they don’t want to follow his rules. Sun, who made a small fortune selling oil drilling equipment and tools, says he got into the business because he loved honey. In the hot summers, he would gulp down one glass after another of cold water mixed with acacia and other varieties of honey.

Sun hired a technician to help beekeepers keep their colonies strong without using medicine, and he doles out free plastic storage containers for honey. Still, people argue with him or his wife.

“They say, ‘It’s just a little amount of antibiotics that I use. What’s wrong with it?’ ” he said.

Agricultural experts hope contractors such as Sun will help lift the standards of the entire industry by pushing tougher requirements on small farmers. Over the long term, Sun says, adopting international standards will pay off by raising the value of products. Honey for export is fetching about 15% more than that headed for Chinese tables, in part because the foreign-destined honey will be sample tested, and the best grades are selected.

Some traders and sellers don’t care about ensuring quality for the domestic market because prices are so low.

“The Chinese life is not valuable,” Sun said. “All the food is like junk food.”

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don.lee@latimes.com


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