Pure, golden honey spread on hot buttered toast, spooned over fresh yoghurt or drizzled on a pancake — these are among life’s great culinary delights.
As Winnie-the-Pooh sang in Disney’s 2011 film: ‘Oh what a sight, oh what a dream, dive in the wonderful, honeyful stream!’
In Britain, we eat more than 50,000 tons of honey a year, for its taste and its health benefits. Globally, 1.9 million tons are consumed.
But if you imagine all this honey comes from bees buzzing around fields and woodlands, think again.
Beekeepers and scientists warn that more honey is being sold than the world’s bees can possibly produce. They suggest much of it is likely to be mixed with cheap sugar syrup.
Something other than bees, it seems, is supplying large quantities of ‘honey’ to the £5 billion global market. That something is likely to be China.
Its production and blending factories are far from the notion of beekeepers tending hives in idyllic woodlands, hedges and fields.
Over the past two decades, global production has increased nearly 50 per cent. During the same period, the number of farmed beehives has increased, too — but by less than 30 per cent to about 90 million, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
‘It is impossible to account for the increase in global production of honey by the modest increase in the number of beehives,’ says Ron Phipps, vice president of the Scientific Commission on Beekeeping Economy at Apimondia, the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations. ‘We believe consumers are being cheated — honey is being adulterated with rice syrup and other sweeteners.’
Beekeepers warn that cheap imports threaten to put them out of business, meaning fewer bees to pollinate crops, wildflowers and trees — risking ecological disaster.
Kate Bowyer, a UK beekeeper with 35 hives near Redruth in Cornwall, says British beekeeping has already become unsustainable: ‘You won’t find many beekeepers who make a living now, even with 100 hives.’
Yet in Britain we are eating record amounts of honey. Sales grew 20 per cent last year and were worth £150 million, according to data company Kantar. The problem is that booming sales have attracted fraudsters.
Expensive Manuka honey, which comes from New Zealand and Australia and is used by celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, was the first to be exposed. Only 2,500 tons are produced annually — but 10,000 tons are sold.
Police intelligence confirms fraudsters are targeting cheaper honeys. And beekeepers from Europe to South America allege the adulteration originates largely in China — the world’s biggest honey-producing nation. It sends 36,000 tons a year to Britain (its biggest global customer).
Experts such as Ron Phipps, who have travelled around China’s honey-producing regions, criticise the speed with which Chinese honey is gathered.
‘In many Asian countries, honey is often harvested too early,’ wrote Professors Norberto Garcia and Stephan Schwarzinger in Food Fraud, a new academic textbook.
‘This unripe honey usually lacks the typical taste and odour associated with honey and has far too high a water content.’
Garcia, a bee physiologist at Universidad Nacional Del Sur in Argentina, and Schwarzinger, a food chemist at Bayreuth University in Germany, added: ‘Water content of the immature product must be reduced before export in so-called honey factories that also filter to eliminate veterinary drug and pesticide residues.’
The honey is then typically sent to factories for blending with different honeys — and potentially other substances, too, such as cheap rice syrup.
Some scientists question if such a substance can be called honey at all — under the legal definition, it has to be stored ‘in honeycombs to ripen and mature’. Factories in China even advertise adulterants online. ‘Fructose syrup for honey,’ says an advert on the online trading giant Alibaba, claiming it can pass tests to identify adulterated honey.
Such practices are known to the Chinese authorities, who say they are working hard to detect them.
Scientists at the Institute of Apicultural Research in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, have published several papers highlighting the issue.
One, published last March by a team led by Lanzhen Chen, said: ‘In order to seek higher profits, high-quality honey is subjected to sugar adulteration through the addition of cheaper sweeteners, such as refined cane sugar, beet sugar, corn sugar, high fructose corn syrup or through substitution of lower-grade honey.’
So how do we stop it?
One emerging hope is nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a proven technology which is being adapted for honey. It identifies the ‘molecular signature’ of a suspect honey and compares it with a global database of thousands of others.
Last summer, Mitchell Weinberg, a New York-based food fraud investigator, put Britain’s honey to the test. He commissioned QSI, a leading German laboratory, to test nine jars of UK supermarket own-brand honey using NMR technology from Bruker BioSpin, part of the U.S.-based Bruker corporation, a leading analytical instrumentation company.
Shockingly, the results from eight of the nine samples — including Waitrose Pure Clear Honey, Sainsbury’s Runny Honey, Marks & Spencer Pure Honey and Tesco Clear Honey — indicated adulteration. These are labelled as a mix of EU and non-EU honeys — under UK rules it is not a requirement to put the countries of origin on the label for such blends.
The supermarkets and honey industry reject such results, saying their honey is ‘100 per cent pure’ and that Bruker’s database was introduced before it was fully validated and is not yet ‘fit for purpose’.
The Honey Association, which represents UK honey importers and packers, has criticised the firm for failing to open its database for inspection by the industry. Tesco says its honey can be traced back to the beekeepers, but is calling on ‘industry, governments and testing laboratories to work collaboratively to build a more open, transparent testing regime’.
Waitrose said its honey was tested at source and in the UK, adding: ‘The testing of honey is incredibly complex and no one test in isolation is reliable.’ M&S did not comment.
A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s said: ‘We test our honey at every stage of the supply chain using the official methods recognised by the EU honey regulations and have full traceability back to bee keepers showing full compliance to specification. Audits of honey suppliers are also regularly conducted in all countries of origin.’
The retail industry has conducted thousands of tests on UK-sold honey, but has yet to report any adulteration — which, it says, proves its quality.
However, many beekeepers disagree, saying standard industry tests are obsolete and easily hoodwinked.
Thomas Spengler, of Bruker BioSpin, says its systems and databases are reliable, robust and open to enforcement agencies. He adds that private laboratories and firms were denied access to prevent exploitation of the information for the purpose of beating the test.
‘People have been trying to deny and discredit the NMR technique over the years. These people are becoming more isolated because its adoption is increasing,’ he says. Indeed, there is growing pressure on supermarkets to reveal details of their tests and audits.
In 2018, the European Commission said ‘a potentially significant proportion’ of honeys may be mislabelled or adulterated.
In the UK, Labour has tabled parliamentary questions asking the Government what it has done ‘to ensure that honey sold in the UK is not adulterated and bulked out with cheap sugar syrups’.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman says it is considering an offer from Bruker to audit its NMR database, adding: ‘We continue to work closely with the Government Chemist and the Food Standards Agency…to deter those wishing to commit fraud.’
Some in the UK honey industry, however, dismiss attacks on Chinese imports. ‘There’s a lot of vested interests wanting to see Chinese honey taken off the table,’ says one industry source.
Martin Pope, of Beeza honey, worked as an accountant specialising in fraud investigations before switching to beekeeping. He now has 50 hives around Kingsbridge, Devon, and says more government action is required: ‘Consumers are potentially buying something they probably didn’t want and beekeepers’ businesses have become less viable. It’s time ministers did their job.’