Officials said it is the biggest food smuggling case in US history and is part of a years-long crackdown on illegal imports of substandard, tainted and counterfeit products.
The accused allegedly conspired to illegally import more than $40 million of Chinese-origin honey in order to avoid anti-dumping duties totalling nearly $80 million.
The case comes after a series of scares involved Chinese products including melamine-tainted pet food that killed scores of dogs and cats and children's toys made with lead paint.
Patrick Fitzgerald, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, cautioned that while the honey was tainted with antibiotics that are not approved by US regulators for use in honey production, there was no reason for the public to "panic."
"There is no allegation and no reason to believe that any of the honey involved in this case had led to any injury or illness," he told reporters, adding that the bulk of the imported honey was of a commercial grade and would have been diluted before it reached consumers.
German company Alfred L. Wolff is allegedly at the heart of the conspiracy to import the mislabelled honey.
It allegedly bought low-cost honey from several Chinese suppliers and then shipped it to other countries where it was filtered to "remove pollen and other trace elements that could indicate that the honey originated from China," the 44-count indictment said.
Some of the honey was also mixed with honey from India to further disguise its origin.
Alfred L. Wolff also allegedly commissioned falsified lab reports in order to hide traces of antibiotics in some shipments and then sold them to customers it knew would not test the honey upon arrival.
"The charges allege that these defendants aggressively sought and obtained an illegal competitive advantage in the US honey market by avoiding payment of more than $78 million in anti-dumping duties, and while doing so deliberately violated US laws designed to protect the integrity of our food supply," said Fitzgerald.
“The defendants distributed adulterated honey that never should have reached the US marketplace."
Six of the 15 people charged in the conspiracy have been arrested and have either pled guilty or are cooperating with investigators, Fitzgerald said.
The United States intends to pursue extradition of the remaining suspects.
The government is seeking a forfeiture of more than $78 million in unpaid duties and $39.5 million for the declared value of the 606 illegal shipments made between March 2002 and April 2008.
The criminal charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000-fine.
Ten German nationals were charged: former Alfred L. Wolff chief executive Alexander Wolff, 37; Jürgen Becker; Tom Weickert; Marcel Belten; Yi Liu, 45, of Beijing; Sven Gehricke, 44; Thomas Marten, 32; Thomas Gerkmann, 37; Stephanie Giesselbach, 32, of Chicago; and Magnus von Buddenbrock, 35, of Chicago.
One Chinese national was also charged: Gong Jie Chen, 44, who acted as sales manager for defendant QHD Sanhai Honey, a honey producer and exporter in Hebei Province, China.
Alfred L. Wolff, which was acquired by Norevo GmbH in February, and four of its subsidiaries also face criminal charges, as does QHD.
Four Chinese nationals not named in the indictment unsealed Wednesday have pled guilty in related charges.