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In sting, US catches China with fingers in honey jar

Call it a case of honey laundering.

US officials said Wednesday they had mounted a sting operation against two major firms illegally importing honey from China and selling it on the American market, avoiding $180 million in anti-dumping duties.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) described the bust as "one of the largest criminal anti-dumping cases in history."

The offence involved Chinese honey either being mis-declared as another commodity or trans-shipped through other countries such as India, Russia and Thailand to avoid trade duties.

Five people have been arrested and charged and the two firms, Honey Holding of Texas and Groeb Farms of Michigan, agreed to pay fines of $1 million and $2 million respectively.

Washington was abuzz with news of the bust, and lawmakers could not resist the urge to spread the puns on thick.

"This successful sting operation is sure to be a buzz kill for would-be honey smugglers," US Senator Charles Schumer said in a statement.

"For too long, foreign smuggling of this product has created a sticky situation for domestic honey producers. We need a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to honey laundering."

ICE deputy director Daniel Ragsdale, who announced the results of what he dubbed "Project Honeygate", deployed a less successful metaphor, warning cryptically: "Honey is just the tip of the iceberg."

"Schemes like this result in legitimate importers and the domestic honey-producing industry enduring years of unprofitable operations, with some even being put out of business," he said.

Dozens of other commodities imported into the United States under false descriptions or origins, authorities said, costing the US taxpayer billions of dollars in lost import duties.

Ragsdale was quick to insist there was "no health and safety risk" despite some of the 4,900 barrels of seized honey being adulterated with antibiotics not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Honey is often filtered to remove bee pollen, which can be used to trace the honey's origin.

The operation was the second phase of a broad investigation that began in 2008 and resulted in earlier charges of 14 persons.

Ragsdale said authorities from China and other countries had cooperated with US agents in the case, but did not go into details.

US honey producers cheered the Project Honeygate case.

"We as an industry have been working hard to get customs to crack down," George Hansen, who heads the American Beekeeping Federation, told AFP.

"But every time they close one avenue, the cheaters find another way."

US honey production has been in steady decline, thanks to rising costs and a condition known as colony collapse disorder, in which bees from a hive suddenly disappear.

The phenomenon is a growing concern for beekeepers and farmers. About one third of the global food supply is dependent directly or indirectly on crop pollination by honey bees, according to the FDA.

The United States is a net honey importer, with two-thirds of honey consumed in the country last year coming from other countries, Hansen said.

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