Shortly before dawn most days, José Eduardo Moo Pat sets out from his home in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with a protective suit and his metal smoker for calming honey bees. He drives six miles through low-lying tropical jungle to tend to his 30 hives nestled in a clearing.
His work has always been hard. But now making a livelihood is even tougher and his bees are at real risk – not from pesticides or deforestation, but from a catastrophic collapse in the wholesale price of honey. “I think every day about profitability,” says Moo Pat “I have seen many beekeepers disappear in the last two or three years. I don’t know if I can continue. I don’t even have enough money to pay for the fuel to go to see my bees.”
Five years ago, Moo Pat, who is 42 and from the small Mexican town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, was paid 47 pesos (£1.73) per kilogram for his organic honey by a local fair trade co-operative, but the price has now slumped to just 35 pesos per kilogram. The price for conventional honey has fallen even further, from 43 pesos per kilogram to just 23 pesos. Many of Mexico’s estimated 42,000 beekeepers – much of whose honey goes to Europe – are now giving up and abandoning their hives.
Moo Pat blames China for his financial plight. There, cheap honey and sugar syrup are produced on an industrial scale and blended together by fraudsters. Beekeepers believe this adulterated honey is responsible for saturating the market, crashing global prices and deceiving millions of customers.
“Most of the honey imported from China into Europe is blended with syrup,” says Etienne Bruneau, chairman of the honey working party at the European agricultural umbrella organisation Copa-Cogeca. “In China, they tell you if you want honey it’s one price and if you want a cheaper price you can have syrup in it.”
In the UK, beekeepers are also finding themselves squeezed by bargain honey pouring off the production lines in China. “Even for large scale bee farmers the size of the operation would need to be off the scale to be able to compete on price for the product that they sell as honey,” says Martin Pope, who runs Beeza Ltd, producing honey and wax products from apiaries around Kingsbridge in South Devon.
Moo Pat and other beekeepers in Mexico are starting to fight back, campaigning internationally to investigate and expose the honey fraudsters – and the looming risk to biodiversity from abandoned hives and declining bee populations. His federation of honey producers has helped fund tests on supermarket honey in the UK, one of the world’s biggest importers of Chinese honey.
The tests have indicated widespread adulteration, but also laid bare the limited and often unreliable tools available to detect and police honey fraud. Scientists and regulators around the world are now developing a test with a vast database of sample honeys which they hope will lead to the prosecution of honey fraudsters and bring the illicit industry to a sticky end.
José Eduardo Moo Pat with his bees. Five years ago, Moo Pat was paid 47 pesos (£1.73) per kilogram for his organic honey. The price has now slumped to just 35 pesos per kilogram
Virginia Pech Tuk
Beekeeping is one of the most ancient forms of farming, with archaeological evidence suggesting humans have been harvesting honey from bees for nearly 9,000 years. Research published in Nature in November 2015 found traces of beeswax on pieces of Neolithic crockery unearthed in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
There are now more than 90 million managed beehives around the world producing about 1.9m tonnes of honey worth more than £5 billion a year. The industry provides a huge environmental benefit because three out of four crops depend to some extent on pollination by bees and other insects for yield and quality.
Farming bees is, however, labour intensive, so honey is expensive – and that makes it a tempting target for adulteration with cheap substitutes. The most common fraud is the dilution of genuine honey with sugar syrup, typically manufactured from rice, corn or sugar beet.
China is the world’s biggest producer of honey, accounting for about a quarter of global output, but its rise to dominance and its low prices have long been viewed with suspicion. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, where much of the country’s beekeeping industry is concentrated, industrial plants manufacture cheap rice and corn syrup to be blended with honey. Alibaba, the Chinese online marketplaces, even advertises industrial “fructose syrup for honey” for as little as 76p per kilogram.
Beekeepers warn that the flow of adulterated honey coming out of China is so great that it’s distorting the market. In November Copa-Cogeca warned that the livelihoods of many European beekeepers were in peril after one of the worst harvests in decades, partly caused by floods in Central and Eastern Europe. In Hungary, acacia honey production was only ten per cent of the normal harvest.
Such a slump in production should drive prices up. But the European beekeeping industry says prices actually continued to fall because of the surging imports of suspected fraudulent honey from China. They want urgent action to combat fake honey, with better labelling and improved testing techniques.
Some figures in the honey industry claim allegations of fraud are exaggerated or unsubstantiated, and are fuelled by resentment of the low cost of production in China. But tests by regulators have indicated widespread adulteration. In 2015, the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre, tested 893 samples of honey from retailers and found that 127 (14 per cent) were suspected of “containing added sugar syrups.”
In 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found in a targeted surveillance programme that 52 samples out of 240 (21.7 per cent) were “unsatisfactory” because of the detected presence of added sugars. The targeted samples were taken from a variety of importers, processors and retailers based on risk intelligence, unusual trading patterns and a history of non-compliance. Wherever authorities look, it appears that a scandal is playing out on our supermarket shelves.
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If so many top laboratories, scientists and regulators all agree that honey is being adulterated on a global scale, why are there so rarely prosecutions? The answer lies partly in the science, partly in the failure of regulators to understand and co-ordinate that science, but also in the nature of honey itself.
Honey is not just a single consistent substance. Instead it’s a complex mix of sugars which vary according to the region it comes from, the flowers it is derived from and the time of harvesting. Designing a test that can work across a range of honeys and pick out the adulterated ones is a serious scientific challenge.
Historically regulators have relied on the one internationally accepted test, technically known as AOAC 998.12, but usually called the C4 Sugar test. This exploits the fact that the sugar molecules produced by tropical plants, such as sugarcane and maize, have four carbon atoms (C4), while the nectar and pollen protein collected by bees typically come from plants whose sugars have three carbon atoms (C3).
The test uses this difference to see whether C4 sugars have been added to honey. Fraudsters have, however, long been aware of this test – and how to beat it. They simply found other sources of cheap syrup, such as from rice or sugar beet, whose sugar molecules resemble those in honey – so undermining the test.
Scientists have fought back with other approaches, including liquid chromatography/isotope ratio mass spectrometry (lc/irms) which can detect C3 sugars from rice and sugar beet. But the laboratories warn fraudsters have found ways around this test too, creating syrups which mimic the composition of honey. Chinese traders even advertise on Alibaba that their syrup for blending with honey will pass the C4/C3 sugar tests.
There are other tests, but they all have their limitations. There are tests for enzymes such as beta-fructofuranosidase, which are used in industrial processes to turn sucrose into fructose, but the UK honey industry claims they can produce false positives because they do not properly account for the wide variations in honey profiles around the world.
Another test detects psicose in honey, a rare sugar which is not usually found in honey and is a marker for syrup adulteration. This sugar is however found naturally in a very small number of honeys, including chestnut honey, and is therefore unsuitable for prosecuting suspected fraudsters.
The failure to win the technological arms race means regulators are usually unable to prosecute – even though many scientists believe vast quantities of honey sold in shops are adulterated. No existing tests for honey purity are considered sufficiently robust to prove fraud. Or at least not until now.
Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is the technology that could change everything. It works by bathing samples in a powerful magnetic field, causing the atoms to resonate. The resonant frequencies of the nuclei in the atoms are then converted into peaks or spectra on a graph, generating a unique magnetic ‘signature’ for each sample.
In the case of honey, the technique is used to compare the molecular profile of a sample ‘honey’ with the NMR database of genuine honeys to establish authenticity. NMR can identify all the sugars, proteins and other molecules present – including those which should never be in any pure natural honey.
Beekeepers hope NMR will prove a technological lifeline. In late 2018, the Honey Authenticity Project in Mexico commissioned a battery of tests on British supermarket honeys, including NMR tests. They were carried out by FoodQS, a respected laboratory based in Langenzenn, Germany.
Ten out of 11 products – including own-brand honey from Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket – failed the NMR tests because of suspected sugar adulteration. None of the 11 samples passed all the authenticity tests.
In 2020, 13 honeys were subjected to another battery of tests. Nine of the products contained psicose, the rare sugar which would not typically be found in honey. Ten of the 13 honeys tested positive for the presence of enzymes indicating that they may be “adulterated with syrup”. All of the 13 honeys failed the NMR test.
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Arturo Carrillo, an environmental activist who is based in Mexico and is coordinator of the Honey Authenticity Project says that the UK market is full of fake honey “There has been a failure in the UK to combat this fraud. They use obsolete tests for the products and of course they are passing. There is no single test that guarantees the authenticity of honey, but when you apply a battery of tests you can determine more precisely which honey is fake.”
The project submitted complaints to local authorities across the UK in 2019 after the first round of tests, including Richmond Council in London, which commissioned its own tests on Tesco own-brand Pure Set Honey, which sells at £1.35 for a 454g jar.
According to the council, testing by its public analyst “revealed that the honey contained sugar syrup”. It said Tesco and the National Food Crime Unit, part of the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), were alerted to the public analyst’s report.
Carrillo hoped the tests would trigger a wide-ranging regulatory investigation into the suspected adulteration of supermarket honey, and expose the global racket threatening beekeepers. It never happened.
Tesco says it temporarily withdrew its product from the shelves as a precautionary measure, but now believes its honey was “100 per cent pure” and can be “traced back to the beekeeper.” The FSA also declined to act, saying NMR and other advanced laboratory tests are not yet suitable for enforcement purposes. It says it reviewed all available evidence of the Tesco honey, including tests during production and extensive traceability records, and decided no further action was required.
“NMR is a wonderful technique but it’s only as good as your databases,” says Chris Elliott, professor of Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security, who led a government inquiry into a 2013 food scandal in which horse meat was being passed off as beef. He believes “honey laundering is one of the biggest food trades in the world” but considers the current databases are not extensive enough or proven to be fit for purpose.
Commercial laboratories around the world are compiling NMR databases for honey. One US company, Bruker, has built a database containing the NMR profiles of about 1,800 different types of honey, including Chinese samples, for use with its FoodScreener NMR machine. It was used by FoodQS for its tests on UK supermarket honey.
The problem? Bruker and other commercial laboratories insist their databases are confidential, meaning they cannot be independently audited – and no court would accept a secret database as the basis for convicting someone of a crime. Britain’s mainstream honey importers go even further, saying that such secrecy undermines all the accusations of honey fraud by beekeepers and food scientists.
“Laboratories have made up their own tests for honey which are not fully internationally validated,” says David Hoyland, technical adviser to the British Honey Importers and Packers Association. “They conduct tests against a secretive database and then make an opinion based on that database.” He says laboratories using different databases were even producing different results. In short, Hoyland and the association he advises do not consider there to be a significant problem with honey fraud in British-sold honey.
But calls for more rigorous honey standards are growing. In November 2019, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, organised a conference on honey fraud at which delegates called for the “external validation and scrutiny” of NMR honey databases. The previous year a European Commission Technical Round Table on Honey Authentication concluded that “chemical and biological characteristics of genuine honeys (including blends), bee feeding products, and products from inappropriate practices should be generated and stored in a publicly available database.”
That work might have started by now but the Covid-19 pandemic has intervened, as in so many other areas, leaving food scientists frustrated by their inability to tackle what they see as one of the world’s biggest food frauds.
James Gawenis, chief chemist at Sweetwater Science Laboratories, based in Glasgow in Missouri in the United States, tests about 50 samples of honey each week for adulteration, generating NMR profiles and comparing them with the Bruker database. His results, he says, show widespread evidence of adulteration – already enough to suggest the honey industry and regulators in the UK are “delusional”, as he put it, if they do not consider there to be a problem with honey fraud from Chinese imports.
Gawenis says he understands the various databases being compiled had commercial value, but he thinks they could easily be opened for audit and inspection by key stakeholders without them being undermined. “The basic contents of the database should be available. In a criminal case, you need to face your accuser. Well, the accuser is the database. How can you face something you’re not allowed to see?” he says.
“Everyone agrees the technology works, but the government agencies and industry are arguing about the databases. The longer we argue about this and point fingers at each other, the more the public is defrauded and the fraudsters continue to make more money and get more power.”
British beekeeper Martin Pope also wants better testing and tracing. “Testing needs to be improved for imports. Also accreditation of the honey needs to be assured using a method such as blockchain which traces the honey from hive to consumer. Defra needs to step up to the plate in dealing with this.”
Beekeepers in Mexico are heartbroken at the delays, which they say are destroying livelihoods, undermining sustainable agriculture and damaging the environment. Leydy Pech, 55, a Mayan beekeeper from Campeche on the west side of the Yucatan Peninsula and one of the winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize last year, warns the economic demise of beekeepers caused by fake honey is accelerating deforestation.
“The more beekeepers stop working with their bees, the more deforestation there is,” she says. “These beekeepers come out to defend the forest. If there are no beekeepers it is much easier for changes in land use to occur. In my town there are several who have already abandoned beekeeping.”
In Mexico, Moo Pat says he now supplements his income from beekeeping with work as a bricklayer and no longer has the time or money to tend to his bees properly. He says other beekeepers had already sold their land for crop production and gone to work in other sectors, such as tourism. He struggles to understand why the international community is failing so badly to stop the trade in fraudulent honey. “It is as if we are in a race against fake honey on a trail full of stones,” he says. “We have everything to lose.”
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