What's in your honey?

Ayurveda prescribes it for a range of ailments. People eat it for rejuvenation and boosting immunity. An Indian homemaker’s kitchen shelf is incomplete without a jar of this amber liquid. But without quality and safety controls, this gift of nature has been contaminated. CSE laboratory tests find high levels of antibiotics in well-known brands of honey sold in the market. Chandra Bhushan reports on the findings. Savvy Soumya Misra trails beekeepers across four states and finds honey is being produced with the help of antibiotics and pesticides; Arnab Pratim Dutta looks at the thriving business of honey laundering

By Chandra Bhushan, Savvy Soumya Misra, Arnab Pratim Dutta
Last Updated: Monday 12 September 2016

What's in your honey?

Universally, honey is believed to be a natural product. Regulations across the world say as much. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a global body set up jointly by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop food standards for international trade; it defines honey as “the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees 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 the honeycomb to ripen and mature”.

This definition of honey is now threatened. In several countries, the beekeeping industry uses antibiotics to control outbreaks of diseases in honeybees, and as growth promoters to increase production. And these antibiotics are finding their way into that spoonful which reaches the house-holder’s table. So what is the world doing about it?


Codex: Honey is an internationally traded commodity. Codex has set down standards for the quality of the honey which is traded. But it has nothing to say on the presence of antibiotics in honey.

European Union: EU regulates honey under the Council Directive 2001/110/EC. The standard for antibiotics in food (referred to as Maximum Residue Limits or MRLs) is listed in Regulation (EU) No 37/2010—it stipulates that each antibiotic must have an MRL before it can be used on a food-producing species. But there are no MRLs for antibiotics in honey, which means EU does not allow the use of antibiotics for treatment of honeybees.

But EU member states do import honey. For regulating residues of antibiotics in this imported honey, the bloc has set what are called RPAs, or ‘Reference Points for Action’. RPAs are residue concentrations which are technically feasible to detect by food control laboratories. When antibiotics are detected by a laboratory, the member state is obliged to reject the consignment. Till date, RPAs have been established in honey for substances such as chloramphenicol and nitrofurans. EU has also set a provisional MRL of 25 parts per billion (ppb) for oxytetracycline in honey.

USA: In the US, MRLs for antibiotics in food are set by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), and listed in Title 21, Part 556 (21 CFR 556). There are no limits for antibiotics in honey.

What does this mean? Are all kinds of antibiotics, in any amount, permitted in honey? Or are antibiotics ‘unauthorised’ substances in honey and therefore, ‘illegal’?

Regulators in the EU and the US opine that they are ‘unauthorised’ and therefore ‘illegal’, unless there is a standard regulating their levels. This is the reason why EU banned Indian honey from entering its shores—it was found contaminated with high amounts of antibiotics.

Which brings us to the honey consumed within India. Does it have any safety standards? Are there any regulations governing the presence of antibiotics in honey?


In India, honey is currently regulated under three legislations:


    • The voluntary Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norm for extracted honey under IS4941:1994. Brands wishing to obtain the ISI mark will have to follow it.


All three define honey as a “natural product” and lay down standards for its composition and quality (like sucrose content, total reducing sugars and moisture content)—but there are no standards for antibiotics in honey.

Does this mean that antibiotics in honey are ‘unauthorised’ and therefore, ‘illegal’, in India as well?

Indian regulators believe if there are no standards, they can’t regulate. But this perception undergoes a sea change when it comes to honey for export. Indian regulators take great care to ensure the honey exported from the country is safe. For this, an elaborate system of monitoring (called Residue Monitoring Plan or RMP) has been put in place, and the Exports Inspection Council (EIC), under the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industries, has been entrusted with the task of checking exports.

EIC standards: The EIC has set antibiotic standards for honey which is exported. This is referred to as ‘Level of Action (LOA)’—the limit beyond which a sample is deemed non-compliant and rejected for exports. These LOAs have been set for some antibiotics (see table: ‘Doomed by definition’).

None of this, however, applies to honey sold in the domestic market. There are hardly any reports on antibiotic contamination of honey consumed within the country. India also imports honey, but there is no standard to check its quality either. Having come up against this regulatory black hole, CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML) decided to probe just how much antibiotic-laden is the honey sold in the domestic market. By testing some of the best known and most commonly ingested brands. A report.

no standard  

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Hi Sunita, I am a beekeeper

    Hi Sunita,
    I am a beekeeper and trader of Honey. I would like to congratulate you on this story.

    It is very good to hear what was till date under the carpet...has now come in open...

    One thing you have missed in this is the recent ban of indian honey by EIC and rampant use of HFCS and Sweetners in Indian Honey. Believe me ADULTERATION IN INDIAN HONEY exports and domestic both are on higher scale.

    Pls put some focus on this too.




    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Amazing work. As CSE dig's

    Amazing work.

    As CSE dig's the food chain hopefully corporations won't be in denial mode all the time and come and take timely action both for the benefit of the hapless consumer's and themselves but more crucially for the environment.

    Knowledge journalism has found its home in CSE :-)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Hi As we seen out of 12

    As we seen out of 12 samples, 11 samples are contaminated.
    Luckily we have one safe sample also but no one is revealing that brand name.
    Will somebody tell me that safe sample brand name.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  •  The name of the brand is

     The name of the brand is Hitkari Honey. Read more at 

    Posted by: Ndtvsatish | 3 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulation Sunitaji for

    Congratulation Sunitaji for exposing the corporate houses' game playing with the health of common man. We are also promoting scientific honey harvesting, processing and packaging of Rock Bee honey collected from Rock Bee (Apis dorsata) from forest. Our tribal groups are selling it by Brand name " KARHAL HONEY". You should also expose that honey comes from forest is not comtaminated with such antibiotics. In Madhya Pradesh Forest department is also selling honey with Brand "Vindhya Herbals". I feel massage of your report going to society that honey is harmful to our health So please clearify that only honey comes from Apicultures is contaminated while honey of forest is not contaminated.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you on providing us

    Thank you on providing us this information and saving our health.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • CSE have to make clear

    CSE have to make clear comment on this issue,branded honey is harmfull only or the honey is harmful wherever it comes from.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This is an eye opening

    This is an eye opening research. While people were normally concerned about the purity of honey interms of the sugar(bad) content, nobody among the consuming public were really aware of the toxicity caused by the residual antibiotics in honey.
    The EU in fact states that the tolerance level for residues is -ZERO- However I strongly advise you to campaign for a residual free honey- otherwise even eminent doctors in India feel that HONEY is bad for human health- period!! Such ignorance on the part of the medical fraternity has also got to be corrected by you and emphasis be made on the sheer advantage of a variety of health benefits offered by the floral flavanoids and minerals present in Honey as opposed to refined white sugar
    A more pressing and immediate need is a campaign by the CSE on the adverse effects of Aluminium toxicity/ Mercury Toxicity and Fluoride Toxicity which pervades our daily life and on which awareness levels are low thanks again to the ignorance and collusion of the medical fraternity with the Big Corpns/Pharmas.CSE will do well to educate people on these life threatening toxins.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • THank you for very useful

    THank you for very useful information.

    I also request you test Chips, Namkeen, choclates for Heavy metals and pesticides and for other chemicals.

    Thank you

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations for your

    Congratulations for your courage to take on the powerful industrialists. If a simple edible item available from the nature is deliberately contaminated to make undeserving profits, what about the purity of other products marketed by them which are prescribed by doctors and consumed by the public. A lot of research is going on in India and abroad on Ayurvedic medicines containing honey. The antibiotics in honey can bring about wrong results.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Hi, I am a regular columnist


    I am a regular columnist with DTE. Once again, I am very proud to be associated with it.

    Congrats guys...this should definitely be the next campaign that should be taken up like the PEPSI - COCO COLA one...

    All the best!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for all the

    Thank you for all the information. It is truly an eye opener. Thank you for the details on the antibiotics used, makes us aware as customers and this should alert the sellers and producers that they cannot sell the adultrated honey for long, people are getting aware and will demand quality now.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article,very

    Excellent article,very informative. Thank you for making us aware of the lurking dangers"even in the honey we eat"!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • We all know Honey boxes are

    We all know Honey boxes are kept near the mustard fields in Rajasthan and Haryana where fertilizers and pesticides were used in agriculture,definitely honey contains traces of pesticides.The beekeepers also use antibiotics heavily.I have seen on TV one of the assistant of Baba Ram Dev was telling that Honey itself contains antibiotics,that's true.The antibiotics reported are not natural,are chemical like oxytocin etc.

    Mixing in honey was a great trade,few years back may be 2003 international honey rates were gone high upto Rs.80/- per KGS,because china honey was banned due to antibiotics,few honey exporters,imported honey through Nepal and exported it,resulting in rejection of Indian honey as rates comes down to RS.25- Rs.30/- in 2005.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Ji,I congratulate you

    Sunita Ji,I congratulate you for your great work in informing about mixing in Honey recently and pesticides in Cola and Bottled water.I think you also need to take up similar matter like GMO in Organic cotton exported Europe.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The exposure brought out by

    The exposure brought out by CSE team is really commendable. Now the rest depends upon our Govt.-in most of cases like these they always look the other side.
    Hope the awareness through this finding will force the concerned authority to react positively.
    Congrats, Sunitaji & your team.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I go to a Nature Cure Centre

    I go to a Nature Cure Centre in Haryana for about 10 days every year for last 4 years, just for relaxation. I am 55 years old & other wise perfectly healthy. The Naturopathy Doctor there last year did inform about what these big & famous Aryuvedic medicines companies do with the honey. He informed that one of his acquaintance was bee keeper & supplied honey produced at his bee farm to one of the best known brands . His friend confided that this company used to add something not only to increase the volume of production but also to make it tastier than the pure honey. Since then, we are afraid of taking honey, inspite of the fact that it is very important ingradient in Naturopathy treatment. Thus such companies should be penalised heavily & more than that an indepandant agency should monitor them to ensure pure honey reaches consumers. A few years back, we had taken a few 1 kg bottles of Honey, bought from a Khadi ashram, with us to Amman, Jordan, as gift from INDIA, for our friends in Jordan. We were ashamed when our friends informed after few days, that sugar settled down in these bottles & also had started giving foul smell. We wonder what prevents authorities to prepare & impose regulations & regulate these companies. Till such time there will be great crisis of confidence in these companies & in their products. A. K. Bhasin

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • One of Natures gift is now

    One of Natures gift is now sadly also contaminated with modern methodologies. The developed organisations have similar issues. Excessive use of antibiotics for bees has made them incapable of evolving their own defence systems against diseases and bee populations have dwindled. This has impacted yields in crop production. ( USA ) . Bees can collect nectar from over 5-8 kms away from the hive so sprayed adjacent farms with pesticides will also introduce these chemicals into the honey even if bees are in forested areas. Finally our own handling of honey is generally poor. Honey being hydroscopic (absorbs moisture and odours from the air) means storage and handling are key. (Metallic containers are a No as are unclean or multi purpose containers. Finally the processors and packers are ingenious at adding disguised sweetness (cheaper) and removing moisture to ensure it does not ferment. Branded products should offer a greater degree of assurance. (In this country how many branded product companies do you trust? Profits or people? VK lead one of AfricaÔÇÖs most successful honey companies for 4 years.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Antibiotics are permitted to

    Antibiotics are permitted to be used in beekeeping at least in UK, USA and Canada, for the management of foulbrood diseases. For details, consult Federal Environment & Research Agency, UK; USDA and Canadian Honey Council, respectively. But the use of antibiotics is permitted under strict supervision and guidelines.
    RPA values for chloramphenicol and nitrofuran in Canada are 0.3 ppb and 1.0 ppb, respectively.
    Now I will ask CSE that if a beepeeper in India has say 1,000 honey bee colonies (each on single chamber with only 10 BF strength) which costs Rs. 3000,000-00 (only bees cost, Rs. thirty lakh) and colonies are diseased due to epidemic/ outbreak, should he not give any treatment or what should he do or he should let all colonies die and ruin?
    If an human being catches infection, should he not take any antibiotics and die?
    Reply awaited

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Any one can suggest me a

    Any one can suggest me a genuine honey brand. is DABUR Honey we can rely on...

    I'd like to reach to Amit (who posted his comment above) any cont no

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply