Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Honey laundering could sour High Holidays

I was disturbed to read about smuggled honey from China in this article a couple days ago.

As is true for most well-informed people who pay attention to where their food comes from, tainted food products coming out of China is not news to me. The scandals about powdered milk and pet food made international news when they broke (and caused a number of deaths of both children and pets, here and abroad), and there are a depressing number of other examples to cite, should one be so inclined.

For Jews, the story about tainted honey carries a special significance. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is coming up on September 28 (1 and 2 Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar), it is traditional to dip apple slices in honey to celebrate the sweetness of the new year. Clearly, using honey that contains illegal antibiotics and heavy metals negates the whole purpose of this tradition; never mind the health effects of consuming such additives.

Passing off inferior or illegally imported honey as safe and legal is far from the only example of such trickery/smuggling. Many high-end seafood and sushi restaurants serve fish identifed as tuna or something else equally expensive and desirable, when tests have shown the fish is in fact something else entirely (in all fairness, sometimes the restaurants are themselves cheated by their fish suppliers; without DNA tests, it can be very difficult to verify which fish is which). The same is true in the world of olive oil; often low-grade oil is sold as high-end virgin, and sometimes other oils are mixed into the olive to increase quantity.

But this honey story hit me in a different way. Not only is the product in this instance not what its sellers claim, but it is actually potentially dangerous to consume. With fish and olive oil, we're talking about basic fraud, but such frauds do not usually result in a product that can make you sick.

More to the point, from the Jewish perspective, using tainted honey to celebrate the New Year angers me, because the honey is being used in a symbolic traditional way, not merely for regular eating or cooking. It both enrages and saddens me to think of eating such honey to mark one of our holiest days.

On a related note, I just returned from the 6th annual Hazon Food Conference (I'll be writing more about that in upcoming editions of The Jewish Review; be sure to check it out). It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of change facing all of us who work in the areas of sustainable, ethical food. The conference recharged me on many levels and I am excited to implement what I've learned here in Portland.

May this year bring real, lasting change to our broken food system, and may we all greet it with an apple slice dipped in locally produced honey, perhaps from the hives of someone we know. Amen.