Recently my beekeeping club, the Cornwall Beekeepers Association (CBKA), has started running meetings via Zoom. I’m happy about this, as I can listen along curled up at home, without having to get lost among remote country lanes in the dark.
This week Kate Bowyer of the West Cornwall Beekeepers Association (WCBKA) gave a talk “Honey – but not as we know it” for the Bodmin Group of the CBKA – all about honey fraud. This is something I’ve found fascinating ever since watching the Netflix documentary, Rotten: Lawyers, Guns and Honey.
Kate had done an incredible amount of research, throwing in so many statistics that I often wished I could hit a pause button to take them all in. (I tried my best to keep up but apologies if I get any figures slightly wrong!). She has a particular interest in honey quality as she is the Show Secretary of the Royal Cornwall Show, where prizes are given out for the very best local honeys.
Kate explained to us that there are many strands to honey laundering. Adulteration is one of the most common – for example, cutting it with cheap sugar syrup, or adding in bee pollen to obscure its origins. Misrepresentation is another type of fraud – for instance, selling a honey as single source honey made mainly from one particular flower, when it is really not. Yet another type is importing cheap honey and reselling it as premium local honey. Honey fraud is the third biggest food fraud worldwide, topped only by milk products and olive oil!
The UK has increased its imports of Chinese honey by around 20 times over the last 20 years. China’s production has increased by about 88% between 2000-2014, while only increasing hive numbers by 21% (see EURACTIV article). One way Chinese producers deliver such high yields is by speeding up the natural ripening process, harvesting unripe honey in huge drying tanks where they artificially dry the honey (rather than the traditional method of bees frantically fanning it with their little wings).
The Manuka honey industry is particularly lucrative for honey fraudsters. The figures for Manuka honey don’t add up: 1,800 tonnes of manuka honey sold annually in the UK alone, while just 1,700 tonnes in total are produced by New Zealand beekeepers each year – The Manuka Honey Scandal.
In The Honey Regulations (England) 2015, honey has a very precise – and poetic? -definition – “In these Regulations “honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera 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 honeycombs to ripen and mature.”
So honey on our shelves should not contain sugar added by humans; the sugar in honey should come only from the nectar collected by bees. Yet studies investigating the origins of honey often discover extra sugar syrup is in there. A 2016 European Commission study assessing 2264 samples of honeys found that around 20% of the samples were suspicious of containing added sugar (see Results of honey authenticity testing).
There is a shortage of good quality honey. In the US, 90% of commercial beekeepers now make most of their money from pollination contracts rather than honey sales. And beekeeping is an industry lacking in young beekeepers to keep it going. We’ve reached a ceiling on how much honey we can produce worldwide. The average harvest per hive is dropping.
Governments across the world have been working on developing a database of about 10,000 honeys as a reference point. Unfortunately, testing methods vary between countries and some fraudulent samples have been provided. People are protecting their own commercial interests, as there tends not to be an economic incentive for testing honeys and discovering problems. In the UK, DEFRA have been tasked with sorting this database out.
There is some good news: there is now a British Standard Institution (BSI) kite mark standard which honey producers can apply for. The Scottish Bee Company has achieved this for its Scottish Heather Honey. This may not be so great for small sellers though, as testing a sample costs about £150. Will there come a point where we all need kite marks to sell our honey?
For now, buying honey from small-scale local beekeepers at farmers markets or local shops is probably the safest way to ensure you get good quality honey. During the questions afterwards it was commented that customers are often pleasantly surprised when they try a local honey – because it tastes flavourful, whereas they are used to the cheap but bland honeys from the supermarket.
Thank you Kate for a fascinating talk.
- Honeygate: How Europe is being flooded with fake honey
EURACTIV.com 2017 article giving lots of facts and figures on honey imports into Europe
- Key facts about Europe’s honey market (infographic)
An attractive European Parliament infographic illustrating honey trade figures in Europe
- The Manuka honey scandal
A 2014 article by The Independent, investigating why there are usually discrepancies between the labels on jars of Manuka honey and what’s inside.
- Results of honey authenticity testing
A European Commission 2016 study assessing the quality of 2,264 samples collected in Europe.