Where does the honey in the squeeze bottle you buy from your local supermarket come from, what has it been blended with, and is it honey at all? There’s a very good chance that what is in the bottle is not 100% honey: not the liquid gold containing pollen with the health benefits.
That is what emerged during a virtual workshop on honey fraud hosted by the SA Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio) on Thursday and attended by beekeepers, retailers and regulators.
Local beekeepers are only able to meet half the demand for honey in this country and the rest is imported, mainly from China.
Prof Norberto Garcia from Argentina, president of the Apimondia Scientific Commission of Beekeeping Economy, revealed that SA’s honey imports trebled from around 2,000 tonnes in 2011 to 6,000 tonnes in 2020, 60% of which (4,700 tonnes) came from China.
The rest came from Zambia (706 tonnes), Poland (305) and Romania (257).
The reason for that becomes clear when you consider the price, Garcia said. Chinese honey is by far the cheapest, at around $1,141 (about R15,900) a ton, versus double that for Zambian honey ($2,375, or about R33,100) and close to $3,000 (about R41,800) per ton for Polish and Romanian honey.
Here’s the thing. “There are not enough bee colonies in China to explain the huge amount of honey they are currently exporting,” Garcia said.
“Honey is a product of the interaction between the plant and the animal kingdom. No additions can be made at all. If you blend pure honey with fake honey, it is not honey.
“Local beekeepers can’t compete with the price of Chinese honey,” Garcia said. “Your [SA’s] situation is particularly worrying.”
Other forms of honey fraud include:
- labelling honey as coming from a particular floral source, for example orange blossom, aloe or litchi, when it has been blended with other honey or doesn’t come from that source at all;
- adulterating it with fructose, rice or beet syrup; and
- “honey laundering”, or importing cheap Chinese honey in bulk and passing it off as high quality local honey.
Honey is the third most adulterated food in the world after milk and olive oil, said Shannon Riva of the Stellenbosch-based Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services (Facts).
Honey is such an easy target for adulteration. Most adulterated honey tastes compliant. You have to test.
Shannon Riva of Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services
There is no one test which can reveal all about a honey sample in terms of adulteration.
“Honey is such an easy target for adulteration,” Riva said. “Most adulterated honey tastes compliant. You have to test.”
Garcia said with honey adulterators constantly coming up with new methods, it boils down to “a competition between the development of new tests and the development of new syrups”.
“Old testing methods will not detect the latest adulteration methods,” he said. “Testing is complex and expensive, with the main labs in Europe, particularly Germany. They have the most advanced testing methods for honey adulteration.”
Consumers, regulators urged to help combat honey fraud
With SA’s 20-year-old honey legislation and standards in urgent need of updating, adulterated honey could falsely be considered compliant, it emerged at the workshop.
Niel Erasmus of the Food Safety and Quality Assurance animal and processed products directorate was non-committal when questioned about the updating of the legislation, but did say it was possible that producers may be prohibited from not disclosing the country of origin.
It is not uncommon to see honey bottles with “Product of SA and/or China/Zambia/Poland”, meaning the consumer cannot make an informed choice.
“Industry can approach us to remove that allowance,” he said.
Matlou Selati of the Consumer Goods Council of SA said it was “saddening” that honey fraud was happening.
“We will look at this and recommend to the regulators and the legislators that we crack down on the fraud,” she said. “Laboratories are very expensive to set up, but we could accredit private labs and work together to help each other.”
Attorney Janusz Luterek said many retailers were selling products that looked like honey, but in fact were either only part-honey or not honey at all.
“The next time you ask for honey at a coffee shop, look very carefully at the label. Legally, no words or illustration may create a misleading impression of the contents,” he said.
“If it’s not 100% honey, it can’t be described as honey.”
The next time you ask for honey at a coffee shop, look very carefully at the label … If it’s not 100% honey, it can’t be described as honey.
Attorney Janusz Luterek
Fourth-generation New Zealand beekeeper and Apimondia regional president for the Oceania region, Jody Goldsworthy, said beekeepers around the world were having their prices undercut by the suppliers of adulterated honey.
“With a fraudulent product, supply is unlimited,” she said. “They create a false market floor which the supermarket groups use to bring other suppliers down to.”
Ultimately consumers are key to stemming honey fraud, she said. “Many regulators will be the last to act, but consumers vote with their feet. They abandon brands which are implicated in adulteration.”
But that can only be proved by means of very expensive testing.
Honey bees don’t just produce honey, they pollinate crops, and their loss is a threat to agriculture and food security, says renowned bee researcher Prof Robin Crewe.
“So protecting them is absolutely vital.”