If you see honey sold on a special at your local retailer, or in a handy squeeze bottle, it is very likely to be impure and adulterated.
That’s the message that Thursday’s SA Bee Industry Organisation workshop on honey fraud hoped would resonate with consumers, regulators and retailers as they unpacked the growing problem of honey adulteration and its threat to biodiversity.
High-demand foodstuffs such as honey — the third most adulterated food in the world after milk and olive oil — are at risk of adulteration because demand far outstrips supply. Since honey is a complex product and expensive to test, the modes of honey adulteration have rapidly evolved and multiplied over recent years.
South Africa’s beekeepers can meet only half of the consumer demand for honey, so the rest is imported, mainly from China, Zambia, Poland, Uruguay and Romania.
Professor Norberto Garcia from Argentina, president of the Apimondia Scientific Commission of Beekeeping Economy, told attendees that honey fraud is an international problem.
Over the past two decades, the world population has increased by 24%, but honey imports have increased by 104%, and honey production is up by only 49%. “Every year the world demands 23,000 tons more [honey],” Garcia said.
Artisanal producers simply cannot compete with industrial producers, which are undercutting their prices. The paradox is that while the product is increasingly in demand, it is more difficult to produce every year and yet honey prices have decreased massively.
“The price steadily rose from 2005 to 2015 in the US, on average by $209 ton/year. Then, in 2015, the price started collapsing by $201 ton/year,” said Garcia. “Since 2011, the import price has stabilised, but the export price has trebled, mainly because of Chinese imports.”
In 2020, most of South Africa’s honey imports came from China — the rest were from Zambia, Poland and Romania. Imports from China were much cheaper than those from other regions, at about $1,141 a ton, compared with $2,375 for Zambian honey, $2,979 for Polish, $2,973 for Romanian and $1,642 for Uruguayan honey.
But China does not have enough bee colonies to support its export market, which means it is adulterating its product.
Country of origin labelling is disconcertingly murky, as the Netflix documentary Rotten revealed. Chinese companies have circumvented US duties by exporting unlabelled barrels of honey to Southeast Asian and South American countries, which are then bottled and labelled to state their origin as these countries. The honey is then shipped to the US without incurring anti-dumping duties.
Garcia says this discourages beekeeping — bees and beekeeping are essential to maintain biodiversity and crop pollination — as local beekeepers cannot compete with the price. In South Africa, dumping adulterated honey is a particular concern.
The Codex Alimentarius (1981), a collection of internationally accepted standards, guidelines and codes of practice to protect consumer health and ensure fair practices in the food trade, defines honey as a “natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature”.
Honey, therefore, must not have any other ingredient added to it: The only two sources of honey are nectar and the secretions of living parts of a plant.
Honey fraud can be perpetrated in various ways: through dilution with artificially manufactured syrups; the harvesting of immature honey (which demands human intervention in the product to prevent fermentation); using ion-exchange resins to remove/or reduce residues and/or lighten colour; masking or mislabelling of geographic or botanical origins indicators; and artificial feeding of bees during nectar flow.
To detect fraud, honey must be tested, as most adulterated honey tastes like honey. Garcia said honey has a complex composition and increasingly sophisticated modes of fraud ensure there is no single test that can detect all types of fraud.
Adulterators have become adept at concealing their fraud and testing laboratories have to stay ahead of the game, which requires sophisticated and expensive tests. The most advanced methods are used in the big European laboratories, particularly in Germany.
“All beekeepers have a role in creating awareness. It is our duty to be guardians of the purity and authenticity of our products, not only to our benefit, but to protect consumers, food security and the biodiversity of the planet,” Garcia said.
South Africa’s honey legislation and standards are in urgent need of an update, to prevent adulterated honey from slipping through the cracks. Country of origin designations are notoriously cryptic, with honey labels revealing products being of “South Africa and/or Argentina/China/Australia/Brazil/Uruguay/Zambia” and similar iterations, to confuse the consumer.
Niel Erasmus, of the Food Safety and Quality Assurance Directorate in the Department of Health, told participants that the industry “could” approach his department to remove that allowance.
Food and patent attorney Janusz Luterek told delegates that if it’s not 100% honey, it cannot be described as honey: “The next time you ask for honey in a coffee shop, look very carefully at the label. Legally, no words or illustration may create a misleading impression of the contents.”
Luterek warned that retailers were selling products as honey when they were in fact not the pure product.
Jodie Goldsworthy, a fourth-generation beekeeper from Australia and the regional president of the beekeepers’ federation Apimondia, said in 2015, at an Apimondia conference in South Korea, that she saw equipment being sold to aid adulteration. During the World Beekeeping Awards in 2019, held in Montreal, Apimondia president Philip McCabe announced an investigation into honey after detecting adulteration in numerous products entered for competition.
Adulteration has created a dysfunctional global market, Goldsworthy said. Supply and demand are not working properly: in a fraudulent market, supply is unlimited so the honest beekeepers — whose prices are undercut — are affected.
With increased media attention on the problem, consumers hold the key to stemming the tide of fraud. By voting with their wallets, consumers abandon brands that are implicated in adulteration. DM/BM