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How Sampling Honey Helps DHS Encourage Legal Trade

A research institute is working with the agency to innovate detection and monitoring capabilities around contraband and other illegal imports.

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Sampling honey can help the Department of Homeland Security promote legitimate trade, according to researchers at the Border, Trade and Immigration (BTI) Institute, a DHS Science & Technology Center of Excellence led by the University of Houston.

The institute contributes research and development to DHS components like Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by studying migration patterns, crafting software tools to optimize port efficiency, and developing sensors to detect explosives and narcotics in shipping containers.

BTI also studies the genetic makeup of honey to spot counterfeits. The “honey project” is led by Richard Wilson, a bioengineer at the University of Houston.

“What he’s working on is a project trying to get at the country of origin issues relating to honey,” Kurt Berens, BTI’s executive director, told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “Many products are counterfeited, brought into the United States with labels claiming the product is from a certain area and it’s not. Honey is one of those products. For many years the Chinese would label honey and try to get it in either to avoid duty taxes or in some cases sanctions on products.”

For years, scientists evaluated imported honey’s correct origin by examining its pollen under a microscope.

“There was just a handful of experts in the world who [would] put a drop of honey under a microscope and see the pollen grains and see that’s a certain plant that grows in a certain region of that country,” Berens said.

But criminals noticed this practice and began filtering honey to trick scientists.

“Some honeys are filtered naturally, others aren’t, and [criminals would] add back pollen to make honey look like it came from somewhere it didn’t,” Berens said. “What Richard and his team are doing are looking at fragments of DNA that’s left behind and building a library so you’ll be able to cross reference against the plants from the region to determine if this is honey that’s been adulterated and being advertised as something that it’s not. It’s taking the country-of-origin analysis to a very elegant level, one that should be virtually impossible for a criminal enterprise to defeat.”

Turns out helping facilitate legitimate trade for DHS can be a sweet job.

“Rich has had honey on toast every day for the next three months for this,” Anthony Ambler, director of BTI and dean of the University of Houston College of Technology, told GovernmentCIO Media & Research.

The honey project is part of a theme of projects aiming to encourage legitimate trade by limiting counterfeit commodities and products entering the U.S. Other commodities of interest include aluminum and steel.

“We found someone in Colorado that was an expert in radio isotopes and put forth a proposal to look at rare radio isotopes in aluminum and steel to find out where in the world it originated,” Berens said. “And fingerprinting crude oil. They’re able to take an unknown sample and tell you the exact well [the oil] came from.”

Monitoring Drugs, Explosives and Migration

Tracing imported commodities and products is just the tip of BTI’s iceberg.

One recent successful project involved a former Drug Enforcement Administration investigator, Gary Hale, who helped BTI develop a tool to trace human smuggling patterns from Guatemala.

“He did a combination of on-the-ground interviews with shelters and individuals who were being trafficked in temporary facilities along the route through Mexico, and utilized [Geographic Information Systems] data, satellite imagery, to help create maps for routes that were being used to traffic people,” Berens said.

The effort provided information that DHS previously did not have in terms of geographical origins, routes and methods of payment in trafficking schemes.

In another recent project with a group called Lantern, BTI created sensors to detect nuclear material in shipping containers arriving in ports. The company placed sensors on commercial off-the-shelf drones, which then scanned these containers for radioactive material or voids where criminals might have hidden contraband.

“Eleven million shipping containers come into this country every year, and it’s quite a task to make sure bad actors aren’t slipping items into those containers, whether they be nuclear material for weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons, or even smuggling of humans or wildlife,” Berens said.

In a pilot study, they detected “minute” levels of radiation at 50 microcuries. This information is displayed on the drone controllers for pilots to monitor in real time to signal exactly where the material was in the shipping container.

“The reason that’s important is, while all shipping containers are screened for radiation, the process is very cumbersome; they’re offloaded, taken to a monitor, then brought back in for processing. A drone solution could markedly speed up processing of containers,” Berens said.

BTI also studies migration patterns and makes economic policy recommendations to help control and facilitate legitimate migration into the U.S. The institute also is working on a blockchain project to the secure the supply chain.

“[Incorporating privacy into a blockchain system] is imminently doable and strengthens the security of the supply chain significantly,” Berens said. “We’ve done a study looking at reengineering the entry process. The way products currently come into the United States … how does that look when you overlay a blockchain distributed ledger into the system, what are the key points that have to be addressed? That study generated a report on how blockchain could be implemented.”

The team also is looking to incorporate blockchain in e-commerce, with a study that is expected to finish soon.

Like all DHS S&T centers of excellence, part of BTI’s mission is to train the next generation of the workforce.

“We create these classes and put them in our catalog so students in the rest of the university can take these classes,” Ambler said. Many students go on to pursue careers with DHS as a result. “We also have a very big supply chain and logistics program in the college,” he added.

BTI’s focus areas basically create an employee “pipeline” for DHS components like CBP.

Even though DHS doesn’t accept or fund all of BTI’s research projects, Berens and Ambler think it’s important to feed their curiosity and continue listening to DHS and working with components to identify the gaps BTI can fill.

“The centers of excellence were stood up to be a force multiplier for DHS,” Berens said. “We need to understand better what DHS is doing — not to duplicate efforts — and come up with solutions to problems they either don’t have the bandwidth to cover or from a different perspective.”

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