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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German police foil teenage school ‘Nazi attack’

German investigators said Thursday they foiled a school bomb attack, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a "Nazi terror attack".

German police foil teenage school 'Nazi attack'

“The police prevented a nightmare,” said Herbert Reul, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state.

Police in the city of Essen had stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

Some of the pipe bombs found contained nails, but officers did not find any detonators, Reul said.

There are “indications suggesting the young man has serious psychiatric problems and suicidal thoughts,” said Reul.

Material found so far in the suspect’s room include his own writing which constituted “a call for urgent help by a desperate young man.”

The suspect was allegedly planning to target his current school or another where he studied previously.

“All democrats have a common task to fight against racism, brutalisation and hate,” said NRW’s deputy premier Joachim Stamp, as he thanked police for “preventing a suspected Nazi terror attack”.

The suspect is being questioned while investigators continue to comb his home for evidence.

Investigators believe that he was acting alone.

They had been tipped off by another teen who informed them that the young man “wanted to place bombs in his school”, located about 800 metres from his home.

The school, as well as another institution, were closed on Thursday as investigators undertook fingertip searches as the locations to ensure that no bombs had been placed on site.

‘Neo-Nazi networks’ 

Germany has been rocked by several far-right assaults in recent years, sparking accusations that the government was not doing enough to stamp out neo-Nazi violence.

In February 2020 a far-right extremist shot dead 10 people and wounded five others in the central German city of Hanau.

Large amounts of material championing conspiracy theories and far-right ideology were subsequently found in the gunman’s apartment.

And in 2019, two people were killed after a neo-Nazi tried to storm a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

Germany’s centre-left-led government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz took office in December pledging a decisive fight against far-right militants and investigators in April carried out country-wide raids against “neo-Nazi networks”, arresting four suspects.

The suspects targeted in the raids were believed to belong to the far-right martial arts group Knockout 51, the banned Combat 18 group named after theorder in the alphabet of Adolf Hitler’s initials, US-based Atomwaffen (Atomic) Division or the online propaganda group Sonderkommando 1418.

German authorities were also battling to clean extremists from within their ranks. Last year, the state of Hesse said it was dissolving Frankfurt’s elite police force after several officers were accused of participating in far-right online chats and swapping neo-Nazi symbols.