Posted 5 August 04
A bitter taste of honey
accusations of foul play in the beekeeping world have exposed the ruthless side
of a global trade. Michael Durham reports
Wednesday July 21, 2004
The cosy-sounding world of honey - redolent of toasted crumpets and jars with flowery labels in country shops - has been going through turbulent times. When Northumbrian honey farmer Willie Robson blew the whistle on a fellow beekeeper, Richard Brodie, for potting Argentine honey and passing it off as Scottish borders honey, the court case that resulted last week before Berwick-on-Tweed magistrates exposed some of the tough realities of an intensely competitive international business.
The most significant of these realities is that bees - like any creature - can get sick; so beekeepers administer small doses of antibiotics. The less scrupulous overstep the limits by dosing hives with excessive levels or banned drugs.
One reason that Brodie's scam rang food-safety bells is that Argentine honey has come under scrutiny in recent times. For while Brodie represented small-time honey laundering, Argentina is among a number of nations suspected by EU and other industry sources of having laundered on a larger scale honey that is not their own in recent years.
Britain produces only about one-tenth of the honey it consumes. The rest, about 22,000 tonnes of the sticky amber imported from countries all over the world, is often blended before sale. But how can we be sure that the honey in the pot is what the label says?
In the boardroom of Britain's biggest honey packer, Rowse - based in the Oxfordshire town of Wallingford, at the heart of Britain's "honey valley" - operations director Brian Butcher says that for legitimate blenders, "the trouble is there are so many places in the world where people are selling dodgy honey. Once you spot a problem area, it moves elsewhere."
In January this year, 14,000 jars labelled "Produce of India" were stopped for testing at Felixstowe docks. The honey turned out to be contaminated with chloramphenicol, a wide-spectrum antibiotic banned in food production in most countries. In susceptible individuals, it can cause a fatal blood condition, aplastic anaemia. And the country most associated with the use of chloramphenicol on bees? China - whose honey had consequently been banned on health grounds by the EU in 2002. Commenting on the Felixstowe seizure, Vijay Sardana, head of the Indian trade body CITA, said that India believed Chinese honey was being smuggled into India through Nepal, repackaged and then sold abroad.
China rejects such accusations, saying that competitor nations have a vested interest in peddling untruths to get China's honey pushed off the market. And Beijing has received new support from Brussels, which has just rescinded the import ban after EU inspectors confirmed that China was moving to stop chloramphenicol use and establish an effective control and detection system for food safety.
During the two-year EU ban, the disappearance of legal Chinese honey caused upheaval. For years it had been a basic ingredient in blended honeys because of its sweetness and cheapness; now packers worldwide switched to Argentine, Mexican and east-European honey. Yet chloramphenicol-tainted honey kept turning up.
In the export market there was a dramatic increase in honey on offer from Vietnam, for instance, where the bees had gone into such an overdrive that a country not known as a significant honey exporter had thousands of tons for sale. And there was something else. Thomas Heck, a director of the leading British honey importer Kimpton Brothers, recalls being offered a container-load of Vietnamese honey two years ago. "Standard Vietnamese honey is dark, but this was white," he said. "It wasn't from one of our usual suppliers. We turned it down."
Singapore suddenly discovered a penchant for beekeeping - surprising in a country which, according to Bee Culture magazine, "has no bees" in the commercial sense. Overnight in early 2002, just as Chinese honey was banned by the EU, Singapore became the world's fourth biggest honey exporter and the tonnage of honey sold to Australia, which in 2001 had been zero, leaped to nearly 1,500 tonnes.
As emails and faxes kept arriving at honey packers in Europe and the US offering cheap honey from some unlikely places, investigators came to a startling conclusion: contaminated honey from China was being relabelled and offered for sale as the produce of third-world countries. In the past 12 months, honey labelled as the produce of Cyprus, Tanzania, Moldova, Romania, Argentina, Portugal, Hungary, Spain, Bulgaria and Vietnam has turned up in European ports, honey blenders and supermarkets, testing positive for chloramphenicol. In this period, it has been found in 14 consignments intercepted in Europe and the EU's "rapid alert" food safety system in Brussels has been notified.
China challenges all attempts to brand its exporters as honey launderers, or its industry as the sole source of contaminated honey. "It is just not fair to immediately classify as Chinese honey anything containing chloramphenicol," it says.
A detailed official statement to the Guardian throws the chloramphenicol allegations back at other honey producers: "Antibiotic in honey is a global problem, not just a problem to China, "it says, adding that the industry organisation Apimondia convened a world conference in Germany two years ago to discuss this problem, after a survey of the international honey industry reported that "sulfonamides were found in Canadian honey, tetracycline and streptomycin in American, Mexican and Argentine honey, miticides and insecticides in American honey and chloramphenicol in Chinese and European honey."
Regardless of the origins of the honey on sale in the shops, the question now for Britain's consumers will be: how safe is it? During the ban on Chinese honey, the UK government's veterinary residues committee said it found just five samples of chloramphenicol-contaminated honey - labelled as being from Argentina, Romania and Moldova - in British shops. Officials cannot possibly check all 22,000 tonnes imported from abroad, and it appears they follow a system to test only where there are good grounds for suspicion. But with contaminated honey detected in exports from countries as diverse as Spain, Portugal and Argentina, can any country be deemed safe?
According to Butcher, who is also chairman of the Honey Association, a trade body, the British importers and packers who actually put most of the honey into the jars are on top of the problem. "Now we test everything and we stick with suppliers we know and trust. When they found contaminated Moldovan honey, every honey packer in the UK knew about it within the day. We are confident nothing will get through."
The Honey Association's technical adviser is Peter Martin, an expert on pollen analysis whose hobby is learning Mandarin Chinese and who keeps a freezer full of honey samples from all over the world in his kitchen. Martin has travelled three times to visit Chinese honey farms and is struggling to master the language because, he says, he believes the future for safe honey lies in persuading the Chinese to produce it, not just telling the Chinese to keep their honey to themselves. Martin has never found chloramphenicol in any samples sent to him for analysis by British packers.
Meanwhile, another phenomenon has been adding to the turbulence in the global honey market - ultrafiltered or "UF" honey. First noticed in the US, it is honey with almost everything taken out, including the impurities.
Bruce Boynton, chief executive of America's National Honey Board, told the Guardian: "I am not aware of chloramphenicol-contaminated honey entering the US any more. Now it looks like they have found a way to remove the contamination. At least some of the stuff coming in from China appears to be something other than honey." In a test by the board earlier this year, nine out of 69 samples taken from American supermarket shelves proved to be UF honey.
This product - as distinct from the "fine-filtered honey" marketed in Britain by companies such as Gales - is, according to most honey experts, not honey at all. Instead it is "a sweetener derived from honey" - honey that has been diluted with gallons of water, heated up to a high temperature, passed through an ultra-fine ceramic or carbon filter, and then evaporated down to a syrup again. In the process, every trace of impurity - including, some believe, traces of chloramphenicol - are removed.
America's believes that UF, rather than contaminated honey, is now the real threat to the purity of honey internationally. "It started coming in a year or so ago," Boynton said. "It's got a yellowish cast, and it's a little thicker than real honey, and it doesn't taste like regular honey either. We're developing a good, reliable test for it with a research institute in Oregon. The thing about this stuff is that it's incredibly cheap. A lot of packers deny it, but I imagine it could be used quite widely in the American food industry instead of the real thing."
Hundreds of miles away in Texas, beekeeper Jerry Stroope is just as forthright. Stroope, who farms 6,000 bee colonies across 100 square miles of Texas to produce indigenous wildflower and tallow tree varieties, complains: "Nobody can prove it yet, but my guess is that all the big food manufacturers are using this stuff. And the US government is not going to take these boys on - they are just too powerful."
So the sting in the tail is that, if Stroope and the US National Honey Board are right, who needs to launder honey across international borders if you can simply ultrafilter it instead?
UF honey may not as yet have reached these shores. A spokeswoman for the Food Standards Agency said: "We are not aware of 'ultrafiltered' honey entering the UK, and the process described would go against the spirit of the UK's honey regulations and would result in a product not of the nature, substance or quality expected by consumers. We will be talking to the relevant enforcement authorities to advise them of the possibility of products of this nature entering the UK."
Butcher says British packers have never encountered the stuff. "If UF honey does exist, I am certain we would be able to tell. I don't think it could be imported into Europe. By all accounts it is tasteless and colourless. We would know from the tests that something was wrong and we would not use it."