When I first saw that Netflix had released a new series called “Rotten,” I had mixed feelings about it. I was intrigued to learn more about the food industry and its deceit, but I also didn’t want to know too much. The old adage “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind. Sometimes you just don’t want to know how badly you’ve been duped, and I especially don’t want to be turned off of food. Netflix is usually my mindless escape after the kids have gone to bed. I’ll be honest; some nights I just don’t have the energy to even think about thinking too hard. But while it’s been fun catching up with Ross and Rachel and all of my other old “Friends,” I decided to delve into “Rotten” for something a little more educational.
The first episode in this six-part series is all about honey, an ingredient I’ve been using a lot of lately. Some of my most coveted ‘clean-eating’ cookbooks tout it as one of the best antibacterial, antiseptic, and natural digestive-aids around. Unfortunately, while we think of honey as an all-natural food product, that’s not always what we’re getting. Cheap substitutes are being used, meaning we’re often eating something that is not actually honey at all.
It’s an incredible shame when you consider just how remarkable the natural process of making honey is. The documentary does a wonderful job of showing hard-working bees sucking the nectar, then naturally thickening it and preserving it. You’ll also learn all about the 9,000-year tradition of beekeeping, and come to appreciate how difficult a skill it is to master. Unfortunately, enjoying the fruits of their (or the bees’) labour isn’t possible, with most American beekeepers struggling to keep their businesses going. The strange thing is they should be doing really well; the honey business is booming. The documentary explains that worldwide honey consumption is rising by about 40 million pounds a year, with the United States being responsible for half of the increase. But for the last decade, several different environmental and agribusiness stressors have bees dying off in record numbers. The supply and demand numbers just aren’t adding up, and yet honey exports into the U.S. from Asian countries, in particular, have risen rapidly.
The only way to explain it is honey alteration. “Rotten,” says cheap fillers like rice syrup are being used in many of the bottles of honey you find in the stores. A testing lab in Germany has been able to detect the syrups and sanctions have been placed on China, for example, which sold altered honey so cheap that American producers weren’t able to compete. While it can still export honey to the United States, China now pays three times more in export fees. There are ways around this, the documentary points out, like finding other Asian countries to export it on their behalf. And the testing process in Germany isn’t perfect either, with ‘honey crooks’ also finding ways to beat the system and have their altered product fly under the radar.
Overall, this episode does a wonderful job of educating viewers about the deception in the honey industry, and about the challenges domestic producers face. With bee colonies disappearing, Montana producers are busy rebuilding their operations by splitting hives and creating artificial ones. What’s more, featured experts in this episode explain how difficult it has become to be financially successful as a honey-production-only establishment. It’s left some beekeepers no choice but to make a little extra money by lending their bees to the pollination of almond trees in California, a highly-lucrative business right now. Of course, that presents the honey industry with different risks and challenges, like the spreading of disease from colony to colony, and the risk of colony theft. You walk away from this “Rotten” episode feeling quite sorry for the hardworking people in the honey industry looking to make an honest dollar.
You also walk away knowing that unless you’re buying locally and organically produced honey, there’s no telling what you’re eating. There’s a local producer selling honey at a farmers market in my town, and I’ll go out of my way to buy from him. Because I really don’t like being duped.