SALISBURY, N.C. -- Honey prices have increased significantly on store shelves due to problems with supply from overseas, said a spokesman for Food Lion here.
"We're concerned that a huge amount of people will stop buying honey," said Jim Powell, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Sue Honey Association, Sioux City, Iowa, makers of Sue Bee brand honey, and one of Food Lion's suppliers.
The loss of 400 million pounds of honey from the worldwide market after an illegal antibiotic was discovered in bulk imports of Chinese honey has caused the price to rise, Powell said. As a result, "We are losing that fringe market of people who don't buy honey very often and are influenced by price."
Sue Bee's chief markets are health food stores, all grocery stores in California and on the East Coast, Powell said.
The situation is having an impact on food service and manufacturers, such as Kellogg's and General Mills for their honey-sweetened cereals, on brewer Anheuser-Busch for its Honey Michelob Lager beer, he said, and also on honey baked hams, honey barbecue sauces and honey mustards.
"These people are very concerned and are looking at reformulation. We are concerned about usage and concerned about this change," Powell said.
Back in August, the U.S. Customs Service and the Food and Drug Administration discovered bulk imports of Chinese honey that were contaminated with low levels of chloramphenicol, a potentially harmful antibiotic and unapproved food additive. The contaminated honey was detected during an investigation into a widespread scheme to evade payment of U.S. anti-dumping duties on bulk imports of Chinese honey.
Use of chloramphenicol is limited because this antibiotic is associated with a very rare but potentially life-threatening side effect -- idiosyncratic aplastic anemia. For the very small number of people susceptible to this side effect, exposure to chloramphenicol could be serious.
A "safe" limit of chloramphenicol for such people has not been established. Nevertheless, the probability of this reaction occurring in the general population from food exposure is thought to be very low, Customs said in a statement.
The FDA is unaware of contaminated honey being on retail shelves, but is continuing its investigation into this matter. Thus far, no illnesses have been reported in association with the imported honey.