Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Honey Don’t

As long as no one gets killed in the process, who doesn’t like a good international adulterated food scandal, and this one’s a real honey.

ALW Food Group is a German food-trading company with an outpost in Chicago, where the focus was on honey imports.

Americans consume an awful lot of honey, and much of it is imported, so the U.S. is a logical place for a German company that trades in honey to set up shop. We import from plenty of countries, but one of them isn’t China. China got triple-tariffed a while back because they were flooding the market with deliberately low-priced honey. There’s also the matter of the purity of their product.

Nonetheless, ALW found a way in which they could bring in illegal Chinese honey by masking its origins – and make a bundle in the process. Such a bundle that, when prosecutors swarmed in they found the biggest food fraud case in U.S. history.

ALW had an elaborate plan to disguise their scheme:

ALW relied on a network of brokers from China and Taiwan, who shipped honey from China to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The 50-gallon drums would be relabeled in these countries and sent on to the U.S. Often the honey was filtered to remove the pollen, which could help identify its origin. Some of the honey was adulterated with rice sugar, molasses, or fructose syrup.(Source: Business Week)

Here’s an example of how they worked with one broker:

The broker, a small-time businessman from Taiwan named Michael Fan, had already received advice from ALW about how to get Chinese honey into the U.S. ALW executives had told him to ship his honey in black drums since the Chinese usually used green ones. And they had reminded him that the “taste should be better than regular mainland material.” Chinese honey was often harvested early and dried by machine rather than bees. This allowed the bees to produce more honey, but the honey often had an odor and taste similar to sauerkraut. Fan was told to mix sugar and syrup into the honey in Taiwan to dull the pungent flavor.

Honey with the odor and taste of sauerkraut? Why bother to try to foist it off on Americans? You’d think this would be a natural for the German market.

“Ach, this honey tastes and smells just vonderful, don’t you think so, liebchen?”

Anyway, most of those indicted are in Germany, where they’re out of reach of the not-so-long arm of the American law.

But I guess this means that there’ll be no trips to Disneyworld for them anytime soon. And “they are no Interpol’s list of wanted people.”

As so often happens, the junior worker-bees stationed in Chicago became the fall guys.

Stefanie Giesselbach and Magnus von Buddenbrock (now if that’s not a monocle an dueling scar name, I don’t know what is) were both convicted of wrongdoing. Despite cooperating with the investigation, Giesselbach ended up spending a year in prison, and von Buddenbrock spent six-months wearing an ankle bracelet.

Not that this duo were entirely innocent:

After Fan’s honey shipment was confiscated, an ALW executive wrote to Giesselbach and her colleagues: “I request that all recipients not to write e-mail about this topic. Please OVER THE TELEPHONE and in German! Thank you!”

Oh, yes, please use the telephone and speak German because the U.S. never taps phones during criminal investigations, and no one in the U.S. speaks German, especially in Chicago.

Nonetheless, Giesselbach and executives in Hamburg, Hong Kong, and Beijing continued to use e-mail for sensitive discussions about the mislabeled honey. When Yan Yong Xiang, an established honey broker from China they called the “famous Mr. Non Stop Smoker,” was due to visit Chicago, Giesselbach received an e-mail. “Topic: we do not say he is shipping the fake stuff. But we can tell him that he should be careful on this topic + antibiotics.” E-mails mention falsifying reports from a German lab, creating fake documents for U.S. customs agents, finding new ways to pass Chinese honey through other countries, and setting up a Chinese company that would be eligible to apply for lower tariffs. Giesselbach comes across as accommodating, unquestioning, and adept.

Although just following orders is not a great excuse, it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for the two young ALW drones.

Once they were arrested, ALW closed up shop in the U.S. and left Giesselbach and von Buddenbrock hanging.

In the words of  defense attorney T. Markus Funk – another great name there - 

“I feel that Stefanie and Magnus got the rough end of the pineapple.”

Von Buddenbrock was at least spared prison time. And it seems as if the brief time he spent in jail after his arrest was something of an orange jumpsuit lark:

“I was tense and nervous,” says von Buddenbrock. “But I managed to get along. I speak Spanish. I like soccer.” He played Monopoly with someone’s contraband dice. He got to know Joey Lombardo, the mafia boss. “He gave me a recommendation for an Italian restaurant.”

After his six-months with the ankle bracelet, the insouciant von Buddenbrock self-deported. (And we used to make fun of Mitt Romney…) Giesselbach has done her time, and is being deported by us. I doubt she’ll be back in any big hurry.

Meanwhile, the operation’s queen bees get to sit around the hive in Germany, buzzing about their innocence.

For some, life is always going to be sweeter than it is for others.

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