Honey fraud – the impact on beekeeping

Honey is big business and wherever there are large sums of money involved, fraudsters try to get a piece of the action. Honey is believed to be the third most adulterated product and recently European honey producers urged to the European Union to act. Although honey adulteration is not a new phenomenon the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations «Apimondia» warns that the conditions for honey laundering have never been so aligned. What is the impact of honey fraud and how to move forward?

Honey fraud has been around for quite some time and the topic has received lots of media attention. It is no coincide that ‘Rotten’ a Netflix series on food fraud, choose to feature honey adulteration for its first episode in 2018. Sadly, it seems that the situation only has gotten worse and recently Apimondia states that

«the conditions for honey fraud have never before been so conducive or aligned.» [Apimondia statement on honey fraud – version 2, pp. 2].

Honey is the third most adulterated food and was featured in the first episode of Netflix’s series on food fraud «Rotten».

Global honey production cannot keep up with the demand and as honey is a very difficult product to test, fraudsters have jumped into this opportunity. Especially originating from Asian countries tonnes of fake honey is exported all over the globe. The EU imports 40% of its honey is imported [2] other European countries like Switzerland import even more, 75% [3].

How does honey adulteration work?

There are various ways to counterfeit honey, the most common methods (as far as we know) are mixing in syrups to increase volume or harvesting honey before it is ready.

Adding syrups

Real honey contains pollen originating from the flowers the bees visited to create the honey. The pollen therefore gives an indication from which region the honey originates. Food frauds aim to remove the pollen by a process called ultra-filtration. Filtering of honey is normal (to remove large wax particles or other debris), ultra-filtration however, is a rigorous process of filtering and heating and basically turns the honey in a colorless syrup. Besides pollen also beneficial proteins and enzymes are lost in this process. Also, more cheap syrups can be added to the ultra-filtered honey (which in fact, cannot be called honey anymore), for example rice, corn or beet sugar syrup. This mixture is subsequently blended with real honey to increase its volume.

Harvesting ‘unripe’ honey

Another method of honey fraud is harvesting honey before it is dried properly. When honeybees have collected nectar and stored it in the comb, they need to dry it by fanning their wings. This is important as a too high water content can cause the honey to ferment and go bad, which can be masked by adding additional aroma compounds [5]. Harvesting early cuts time and costs, however it is not allowed as honey loses many of its healthy properties.

Global honey production cannot keep up with increasing demands.
Global honey production cannot keep up with increasing demands.

Impact

This adulterated honey has serious consequences for beekeepers, local ecosystems and consumers. These cheap imports drive the prize of honey down making it very difficult for beekeepers to make ends meet. The real value of honeybees however, does not lie in their honey production but with their pollination services. When beekeepers are forced to go out of business, the honeybees in these areas will be gone as well. Honeybees play an invaluable role in local ecosystems and agriculture and the effects of honey adulteration can be far-reaching.

Finally, consumers are fooled into buying a product which is not what it claims to be. Honey is a healthy alternative to refined sugars[4], however through ultra-filtration many of its beneficial properties are lost. Although it is mostly safe to eat (it is unhealthier though) there have been reports of fake honey being contaminated forbidden substances, for example chloramphenicol (a strong antibiotic) [6].

Where is the fake honey coming from?

Reports indicate that the largest share of adulterated honey originates from Asia, more specifically China [7]. Honey export from this nation has risen 88% percent between 2000 and 2014, while only a 21% increase in honeybee colonies is reported. This is simply to low a number to explain this steep increase in honey exports.

Because of many reports of fake honey coming from China, governments such as the U.S. has prohibited the import of Chinese honey. However, this can be easily diverted, as other countries can function as middle-man. After the U.S. ban, honey exports from neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India suddenly surged [8].

Why is honey fraud not being detected?

Unfortunately, honey adulteration can be really hard to detect. There are only a few specialized laboratories in the world with the right equipment to test honey. However, as Prof. Dr. Stephan Schwarzinger, who is involved in honey analysis, explains.

«There is no single method for authenticity testing for honey – because there are so many ways of adulteration» [7]

«It’s like doping analysis in sports. The people who are testing for doping never know if there is a new drug on the market. When you consider the variety of syrups available, there is no single technology that would cover them all. You need to have a look at many chemical and physical parameters» [7]

What to do about it

Although honey fraud is difficult to detect, this does not mean that there are no measures available to combat honey adulteration. Most notably on the regulatory level, governments can enforce stricter and more frequent testing of honeys. Also food retailers play a role as much cheaper prices can be a strong indicator that the honey might be adulterated and should be checked before being sold as ‘honey’. For consumers, the best way to support bees and beekeepers is by buying your honey locally. In this way you are sure to support the honeybee colonies and their pollination in your area. In the end raising awareness of this issues is probably the most important thing. the more people know about honey fraud, the bigger the support and call becomes for regulators to act.

Literature

[1] Apimondia. (January, 2020). Apimondia Statement on Honey Fraud – Version 2. Retrieved from: https://www.apimondia.com/docs/apimondia_statement_on_honey_fraud_v_2.pdf

[2] Foote, N. (2020, Feb 17.) Struggling beekeepers undercut by cheap honey imports, says new report. Euractiv. Retrieved from: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/struggling-beekeepers-undercut-by-cheap-honey-imports-says-new-report/

[3] Charrière, J. D., Frese, S., & Herren, P. (2018). Bienenhaltung in der Schweiz. Agroscope Transfer, 250, 1-24.

[4] Bogdanov, S., Jurendic, T., Sieber, R. & Gallmann, P. Honey for nutrition and health: a review. American Journal of the College of Nutrition 27, 677-689 (2008).

[5] Bogdanov, S., Martin, P. (2002). Honey authenticity. In Mitteilungen aus Lebensmitteluntersuchung und Hygiene. Vol. 93. Offizielles Organ der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Lebensmittel- und Umweltchemie und der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Lebensmittelhygiene

[6] Beekings. (2019 April 10). Your Honey is Fake Honey. Retrieved from: https://beekings.com/your-honey-is-fake-honey/

[7] Tamma, P. (2020 January 23). Honeygate: How Europe is being flooded with fake honey. EURACTIV. Retrieved from: https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/honey-gate-how-europe-is-being-flooded-with-fake-honey/

[8] Olmsted, L. (2016 July 15). Exclusive Book Excerpt: Honey Is World’s Third Most Faked Food. ForbesLife. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2016/07/15/exclusive-book-excerpt-honey-is-worlds-third-most-faked-food/#68ff5e894f09

Vatorex, Felix Poelsma
4 March, 2020
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