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German firm at heart of US tainted honey probe

The US government announced criminal charges Wednesday against executives from six German and Chinese companies accused of smuggling antibiotic-tainted Chinese honey in order to avoid import duties.

German firm at heart of US tainted honey probe
Photo: DPA

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.

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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