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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
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:
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.
Belonging to the common antibiotic class of Tetracyclines, this antibiotic is used by beekeepers against bacterial foul brood diseases. The BIS recommends it for the treatment of European foul brood disease.
HEALTH IMPACTS: Chronic exposure to oxytetracycline or OTC can lead to bloodrelated disorders, liver injury and delayed blood coagulation. It can damage calciumrich organs such as teeth and bones and may cause nasal cavities to erode. Children under seven years of age may develop a discoloration of the teeth; infants of mothers treated with OTC during pregnancy are prone to a similar discoloration. Some other chronic effects of OTC include increased sensitivity to the sun, wheezing and asthmatic attacks. Tetracyclines are not advised for use in treating pregnant or lactating women and children under 12, except in certain conditions.
It is a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It has been banned from use in food-producing animals, in many countries.
HEALTH IMPACTS: Studies on humans indicate that chloramphenicol could be a potential carcinogen and genotoxin. Repeated or prolonged exposure can lead to organ damage, bone marrow toxicity etc, while longterm exposure can cause aplastic anaemia, a condition where the bone marrow does not produce sufficient new cells to replenish blood cells. Aplastic anaemia is idiosyncratic (rare, unpredictable, and unrelated to dose), generally fatal and could be triggered by even small residues of chloramphenicol.
Several reports document human fatalities resulting from ophthalmic preparations containing minuscule doses of chloramphenicol. Increased exposure to chloramphenicol could mean an increased risk of childhood leukaemia as well.
A Beta-lactam antibiotic, it is widely used in veterinary medicine for treatment and prevention of bacterial diseases. However, it is not recommended for use on honeybees.
Repeated exposure may cause allergic reactions, asthmatic attacks and other disorders.
ERYTHROMYCIN It is a Macrolide-class antibiotic used for poultry, and is now reportedly being used to protect honeybees from bacterial diseases.
HEALTH IMPACTS: With chronic exposure, erythromycin can turn into a terratogen—a reproductive hazard. Cardiac malformation has been observed in infants of women who had taken this antibiotic in their early pregnancy. Exposure to erythromycin (especially long courses at antimicrobial doses, and also through breastfeeding) has been linked to an increased probability of pyloric stenosis (a condition affecting the gastro-intestinal tract, leading to severe vomiting) in young infants.
ENROFLOXACIN AND CIPROFLOXACIN
Enrofloxacin is a synthetic antibiotic belonging to the fluoroquinolone class, and is used to treat bacterial infections; it is used as a growth promoter in cattle. Repor tedly, beekeepers are now using it as well. Ciprofloxacin is a metabolite of enrofloxacin and is used in the poultry farming industry.
HEALTH IMPACTS: Tests done on rats and rabbits suggest these antibiotics may be terratogens and lethal for embryos. The US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has proposed to withdraw approval for the use of fluoroquinolone anitibiotics in poultry, based not on the drugs’ direct toxicity but on its potential for increasing human pathogen resistance.
The samples were analysed in triplicate (each sample was tested thrice and the results given as average of three tests) using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) with Diode Array Detector (DAD) and Fluorescence Detector (FLD). Internationally accepted published methods were used for analysis and validated by PML. The results were confirmed by spiking.
The 12 honey samples were bought randomly by PML from various markets in Delhi in July 2009. Of these, 10 were Indian brands and two were imported brands. None of the packages mentioned the source of the honey; it is, therefore, difficult to say whether the honey was produced and packaged in India, or was imported and then packaged in India, or is a mix of imported and domestic honey
THE DOMESTIC BRANDS INCLUDED:
THE TWO IMPORTED BRANDS WERE:
Lab study by SAPNA JOHNSON, NIMISHA JADON and H C AGARWAL
Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a microorganism to withstand the effects of an antibiotic. If even at a large dose, the antibiotic is not effective in treating an infection, then the microorganism that is responsible for the infection is declared resistant to that antibiotic.
Antibiotic resistance is a global public health concern today. Its primary cause is long-term over-exposure to antibiotics through their use as medicines in humans, as well as in animals, horticulture and for food preservation. Antibiotics are used in animals not only to treat or prevent diseases, but also to promote growth. The types of antibiotics used in animals are frequently the same as, or closely related to, those used in humans.
Antibiotic resistance in bacteria evolves via natural selection through random mutation. When a bacterium is exposed to an antibiotic it starts making changes in its DNA to withstand the effects of the medicine. Once it acquires a specific antibioticresistant gene, it quickly passes it on to its next generation. Resistant genes also pass from one type of bacteria to another. Nature has developed different systems for transfer of genes between bacteria (conjugation, transformation, transduction and transposition) and these mechanisms have proved effective in the promotion of resistant genes. If a bacterium carries several resistant genes, it is called multi-resistant or a superbug.
Several WHO consultations and expert bodies have identified links between antibiotic use in animals and the emergence of mainly food-borne bacteria which are resistant to important antibiotics used in treating infectious diseases in humans.
In December 2003, an expert workshop was jointly convened by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health and WHO to make a scientific assessment of resistance risks arising from non-human use of antibiotics/antimicrobials. The workshop concluded “there is clear evidence of adverse human health consequences due to resistant organisms resulting from non-human usage of antimicrobials. These consequences include infections that would not have otherwise occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death), and increased severity of infections”.
In recent years, more evidence has emerged of an association between use of antibiotic agents in animals and antibiotic resistance among bacteria isolated from humans. An outbreak of human nalidixic acidresistant Salmonella typhimurium DT104 infection in Denmark was traced to a pig farm. Another outbreak of the same infection, reported in the UK, was traced to a dairy farm where fluoroquinolones had been used on the cattle a month before the outbreak. In the US, there was a marked increase in the proportion of domestically acquired Campylobacter infections that were fluoroquinolone- resistant, following the first approved use of fluoroquinolones in animals in 1995.
WHO has recommended that antibiotics which are licensed in human medicine should not be used any more as growth promoters in animals. An EU resolution to this effect was put in place in 1999. Since then, studies from Denmark, Germany and Italy have shown a significant reduction in vancomycin-resistant enterococci bacteria from poultry and poultry- derived food products. Some EU member states (such as Denmark) have, with insignificant or no consequence either on disease rates in animals or on meat market prices, voluntarily suspended the use of all growth promoters, irrespective of their significance to human health.
The major challenge in combating antibiotic resistance lies in the development and implementation of methods for their prudent use. There is also no method for safety assessments of antibiotics intended for animal use. There is a significant difference between traditional chemical residuebased determination of safety of animal drugs and the determination of safety in the context of antibiotic resistance.
The traditional method is found to be inadequate in addressing antibiotic resistance aspect. This is one of the reasons why countries like Denmark have suspended the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.
The journey of honey from bee farms to breakfast tables has become complex with time. From wild honey gatherers, honey supply has passed into the hands of cooperatives of individual beekeepers and then to big companies.
The cooperatives could have helped beekeepers demand better prices, but they did not last long. The Kangra Valley Beekeepers Cooperative Industrial Society Limited in Himachal Pradesh is a case in point. It was set up by local beekeepers to market their produce. Prabhat Choudhary, a retired teacher and president of the cooperative, said big companies (packers and exporters) were initially procuring the honey from the cooperative. Then they started luring individual beekeepers by promising them more money. At the same time, they withheld payments: an agro-firm in Punjab that purchased honey from the Kangra cooperative owes it Rs 28 lakh. Unable to sustain losses, the cooperative was disbanded in the mid 1990’s.
“Cooperatives were a threat to the packers and exporters and as the world market grew, they wanted to divert the honey directly from apiary owners to the market. So, they started dismantling our cooperatives,” says Choudhary. He now sells his produce to the same companies. “I have no other option,” he said. The Himalayan state, a preferred destination for honey procurers, has three cooperatives as of now. But their function, according to an official at the Bee Keeper Development Office in Kangra, is largely restricted to representing beekeepers in cases of disease outbreaks.
Boxes: old and new
Beekeepers say they are at the mercy of these packers and exporters (see: The big players) as they have no means of storing honey. Most of them travel with their bee boxes to different states during the flowering season. They prefer to sell the extracted honey in the same state as taking it to their home state would attract value added tax.
The rates they get depend on the international market. For instance, soon after the EU imposed a ban on Indian honey on June 11 this year, honey price fell from Rs 80 to Rs 60 a kilogramme overnight. Choudhary cited an instance when prices increased from Rs 60 to Rs 90 and then slumped to Rs 65 between December 2009 and March this year. The international price at that time was about Rs 140. Prem Kumar, a beekeeper of Choti Lehar village in Kangra said the packers and exporters have formed a cartel. “They suppress the price because they know we cannot sell it anywhere else. There are no competitive prices for us to choose from,” he said.
To increase their share in the honey market, packers and exporters have been stressing on quantity instead of quality. Beekeepers are encouraged to extract immature honey. For every extraction of mature honey, two to three extractions of immature honey is possible. Beekeepers end up extracting more.
Honey needs a moisture content of 18-20 per cent; immature honey has high moisture content (about 25 per cent). In the hive, bees reduce the moisture content by flapping their wings. If this moisture is reduced artificially, it spoils the quality of the product.
Beekeepers have also moved away from scientific methods of beekeeping: they have stopped maintaining supers (two-chambered bee boxes) wherein honey was extracted from the upper chamber and the lower chamber was left undisturbed; the honey in it was meant for the bee to feed on during non-flowering season. The supers have been replaced by single-chambered boxes and most of the honey in it is extracted. Honey is replaced with sugar syrup which is fed to the bees even during honey flow season, adding artificial sweetness. An official of a honey exporting unit said samples from Bihar have been found having high sugar content.
“Things changed with the EU ban. Exporters suddenly woke up to quality, whereas all through they had been stressing on quantity,” said Ranjit Singh Dhillon, beekeeper in Bathinda district of Punjab.
Changing disease profile
It was in 1965 that the honey industry in India received a boost when the Punjab Agriculture University introduced the Italian bee species, Apis mellifera. Till then, honey was sourced from bee colonies of native species like the Indian rock bee (Apis dorsata), Indian honey bee (Apis cerana), and the dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). The new bee species soon replaced the native bees in the apiaries of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh as the honey yield from their hives was higher. Apis cerana produces four to five kg honey in a year as compared to 20 to 25 kg by Apis mellifera, said Pushpinder Kaur, entomologist with Punjab Agriculture University. Apis dorsata gives a yield of up to 40 kg but its honey is not good enough for exports, she added.
With the change in the bee species, their disease profile also changed. Twenty-five per cent of the Apis mellifera colonies in India perished after a severe attack of Varroa mite in 2005. The mites were reportedly brought to India by infected queen bees from Nepal. The Italian bees are said to be docile and have poor defence. The bees suffered from the European foul brood disease around the same time; it was first detected in Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra.
The Apis cerana, an otherwise hardy species, was affected by the Thai sac brood disease in the 1990s which spread all along the Western Ghats. “Between 1995 and 2010, about 93,000 bee colonies in Maharashtra perished due to Thai sac brood disease,” said Prakash Nikkam, laboratory assistant with the beekeeping directorate of the Khadi Village Industries.
Medicines go awry
The threat of diseases (see box: ‘Bee colonies collapse’) and the growing demand for Indian honey made beekeepers turn to antibiotics. “In India only oxytetracycline is allowed and that through certain universities but the rest of the antibiotics are freely available in the market. Ninety per cent of the antibiotics used for both humans and animals are similar in composition the only difference is in the dosage,” said S G Agarwal, vice president, Little Bee Impex, the export unit of Kashmir Apiaries.
Entomologists, on the other hand, recommend only formic acid and oxalic acid solution to get rid of varroa mites and European foul brood disease. S S Ramani of Indian Council of Agricultural Research and coordinator of the research project on honey bee and pollination said his organization does not recommend any antibiotic or pesticide to beekeepers.
The broad spectrum antibiotic oxytetracycline is recommended only in case of a severe attack of European foul brood disease. The antibiotic is mixed with sugar and left on the bee boxes for the bees to feed on. “It is recommended that antibiotic should not be given during honey flow period,” said R K Thakur, scientist with Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan in Himachal.
The recommendations have little effect on beekeepers. For instance, Ajay Singh Yadav, an 18-year-old hotel employee-turned-beekeeper in Hissar district of Haryana uses a range of synthetic chemicals. He travels with 200 bee boxes to different regions during flowering season. He uses oxytetracycline to induce the “queen bee to lay more eggs as the label on the packet shows a hen with many eggs.” He is satisfied with the results (see: ‘What beekeepers use’).
Yadav also uses deltramethrin, a pyrethroid insecticide and methyl parathion, an insecticide, besides the relatively harmless sulphur powder to prevent ant attacks. Yadav’s employer, Ishwar Singh Yadav, who runs a small honey processing unit from his home in Hissar, feigned ignorance. He insisted the honey he packs and sells is free of antibiotics and pesticides.
There have been reports of use of other antibiotics as well. An executive with a honey exporting unit said the antibiotic ciprofloxacin was being recommended by the Bihar Agriculture University and residues were found in the honey sourced from Bihar.
The most popular bee medication are pesticide-coated paper strips, illegally imported from China and said to contain the pesticide tau fluvalinate. The strips are dropped into the bee boxes and the fumes from the volatile chemical keep the bees safe. Agents sell these strips at a far lower price ( Rs 100- 150 for a pack of 20 strips) than formic acid and oxalic acid ( Rs 250 per litre; its actual cost is just Rs 20). The Chinese strips flooded the market after 2005 when there was a severe varroa mite attack on beehives.
Notwithstanding the EU ban, Jaswant Singh, owner of the Tiwana Bee Farm in Doraha, 20 km from Ludhiana, recommended oxytetracycline for European foul brood disease and Chinese strips for varroa mite. His company supplies equipments and medicines to beekeepers. Doraha is the hub for the honey processing unit.
An apiculture scientist at the Haryana Agriculture University said since the “pesticide used on the strip is volatile and honey is hygroscopic (attracts moisture) in nature it is very likely the pesticide residue would be found in the honey.”
Of late, honey is being associated with shady dealings, crime, and and a thriving illegal trade spanning the globe.
One may wonder why honey, a natural product, is shipped illegally. The reasons become clear if one considers the stringent food safety regulations in Western countries and questionable beekeeping practices in the countries that produce and export the natural sweetener.
The first whistle blower
Around 2002, Australia witnessed major honey imports from Singapore. The city-state, cobbled together with concrete, has neither bees nor beekeepers. Yet, it shipped some 1,447 tonnes of honey to Australia in 2002, according to a report of the country’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Investigations by the Australian government revealed the honey from Singapore was being transshipped or re-exported to the US from Australia. Further probe revealed the honey was not produced in Singapore but re-routed by China. Australia received some 2,228 tonnes of honey from China and Singapore, almost all of it bound for the US shores, in 2002. This was far more than what Australia had been importing.
In 2000, Chinese exports to Australia was some six tonnes. After the US erected trade barriers against Chinese honey in 2001, by levying higher import duty, Chinese exporters began to re-route their consignments through third countries. They changed labels on the consignments to show a different country of origin to dodge US customs. This practice, in popular parlance, has come to be known as honey laundering.
Events preceding the Aussie investigation show why the laundering began. China is the biggest producer and exporter of honey. In 2001, it produced 254,359 tonnes of honey, three times the amount produced by the two other top rankers, the US and Argentina. China also led in exports, commanding a 29 per cent share. Most of this honey went to the US and EU (See table). In the honey trade, there are two distinct groups of countries: consumer countries like EU and the US and others like China, Argentina and Turkey that produce close to half the world’s share of honey. In 2001, the US consumed nearly 185,000 tonnes of honey but produced just half the amount; Germany consumed about four times of what it produced. On the other hand, China and Argentina have little domestic consumption and export most of what they produce.
Chinese honey is one of the cheapest in the world. In 2006, when Chinese honey was selling internationally at about US $1,300 a tonne, honey in the rest of the world cost 50 per cent more. This was because Chinese beekeepers tap honey before it matures. Beekeepers collect honey before the honey flow period which results in high moisture content, an indicator of poor quality honey, said Ma Lun-jiao of the College of Economics at Yangste University in Jingzhou in China, in his study on export competitiveness of Chinese honey, published in 2009.
EU ban, US duty, paved way
Chinese exports took a hit in 2002, when its honey was found to be tainted with the antibiotic, chloramphenicol. Border custom inspectors in some EU countries and Canada detected this antibiotic which is a potential carcinogen; about 30 such consignments were detected in Europe. Other broad-spectrum antibiotics like streptomycin and tetracycline and pesticides like lindane, were also found. The same year, EU banned all honey imports from China.
This was followed by complaints from domestic honey growers of the US, including the American Honey Producers Association, who said the Chinese were dumping cheap honey in the US. The Chinese were accused of undercutting honey prices by about 150 per cent which led to the US Department of Commerce slapping an anti-dumping duty of 221 per cent in 2001.
After 2007, the anti-dumping duty was fixed at $ 2.06 for every net kilogramme of Chinese honey imported into the US. Export figures from Food and Agriculture Organisation showed that Chinese exports fell because of EU ban and the US duties, from 106,868 tonnes in 2001 to 76,678 tonnes the following year. This set the stage for illegal shipment of honey.
One crime ring busted
A charge-sheet by the US Department of Justice against a major raw food material supplying company gives details of how Chinese exporters with the help of the European importer conned the authorities (see map on facing page). The importer, Alfred L Wolff Gmbh (ALW), has its offices in Hamburg, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong.
In May 2008, the US justice department arrested two senior officials of ALW. It led to the arrest of four Chinese nationals from Seattle and Chicago. The testimonies of these locked-up executives showed that between 2002 and 2009, the company illegally imported more than US $40 million worth of Chinese-origin honey to avoid antidumping duties of about US $80 million. This included re-routing thousands of tonnes of honey through countries like Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines and even India. Blending and filtration was done to avoid detection. Investigations revealed the company instructed its employees not use their e-mail for discussing trans-shipment, and use more secure services like Skype. While talking over the phone, employees were told to speak in German.
All money transfers were made to their Hong Kong office that acted as an intermediary between the Chinese companies and Chicago office. Six different companies were involved in this racket including one from India. On September 1, 2010, the US justice department, charge-sheeted this group of 21. Of them, 15 are individuals, and the rest are corporate entities. The names include Alexander Wolff, the CEO of ALW between 2003 and 2009, and the two arrested ALW executives Stephanie Giesselbach and Magnus von Buddenrock. A Chinese exporter of Hebei province has been indicted. Arrest warrants are out against nine indicted persons.
Is India involved?
The charge-sheet revealed that the laundered honey had passed through India. The Indian company that allegedly helped ALW is referred to as the “Indian trans-shipper” that allegedly exported Chinese honey under the guise of Indian honey, worth over US $10 million, between 2002 and 2006. The biggest order supplied by the Indian exporter was 48 containers of honey worth a little over US$ 1 million sent to the US between August 28 and October 18, 2004. E-mail communication between the Indian company and ALW executives revealed the Indian company just shifted the honey from one set of drums to another before shipping it.
In an expose titled ‘Honey laundering, a sticky trail of intrigue and crime’, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in December 2008, accused a honey exporter of New Delhi of sending Chinese honey to the US. About 350 drums containing 223,300 pounds of Chinese honey were shipped from Hubei Yangzijiang Apiculture Co. in Wuhan in China to the Tuglakabad container depot in New Delhi. It named the company as Apis India Natural Products. The load was to be shipped to America’s oldest and biggest honey cooperative—Sue Bee Honey, in Iowa, the newspaper said.
The involvement of Indian players in this trade is still unfolding.
With inputs from Rajil Menon, Mumbai
The one kg jar of honey on Sangeeta Das’s kitchen shelf has many uses. Every morning she takes out a small quantity and puts it on the breakfast table. Her husband, Indranil, a media executive, likes a little bit of honey on his toast and the couple’s three-year-old son has spoonfuls. In the evenings, Sangeeta stirs a spoonful of honey into a glass of lukewarm water mixed with lemon juice and drinks it for weight control. She also uses honey in combination with basil (tulsi) and ginger juice as cough remedy. Sangeeta’s fondness for honey holds true for most Indians who regard it as a health food that can rejuvenate the elderly and boost immunity of infants.
Sangeeta’s trust in honey is unshakeable. Prod her little on what she knows about the popular brand of honey she buys and she looks blank. Sangeeta is just a middle income homemaker in a East Delhi housing colony. She is not meant to know beyond the writing on the label. That is the job of the officials in charge of public health safety and commerce. But the government has health safety regulations only for honey that is exported.
The government doesn’t test for antibiotics and other contaminants in honey meant for Indian consumers. The only test results available are for those destined for exports. They could be used as an indicator for how contaminated the honey sold domestically is.
There is an elaborate monitoring and testing procedure in place for honey that is exported. Even honey gathering and collection is monitored before export, said S K Saxena, director of Export Inspection Council (EIC). “The monitoring is a year-long exercise. In the beginning of every financial year, the EIC submits a plan on the methods and systems in place to check harmful contaminants in honey exported to EU,” he said. At the end of the financial year in March, the council sends a report based on this plan. Only when the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) is satisfied about the quality of the honey, do they allow it to enter the continent. Further tests for contaminants are conducted at the ports of EU member states when the consignments land.
The penalty for improper monitoring and testing of honey exports could mean a ban like the one imposed on June 11, 2010. The European Union banned Indian honey from entering any of its 27 member countries. Reason: honey exported out of India could not be traced back to the farms and were contaminated with antibiotics and heavy metals. A delegation of the FVO, which in September 2009 evaluated the control of residue and contaminates in live animals and their products, found there is no effective control on the distribution and use of veterinary medicinal products in India in aquaculture farms, dairy farms and apiaries. It also noted that 47 per cent of the samples of processed honey collected by EIC (188 out of 400) could not be traced to the farm level.
Indian honey has been under the scanner since 2003. A honey consignment belonging to India’s biggest honey producer—Dabur—was not allowed to enter the UK in 2003 after it tested positive for streptomycin. Since then, EU member states have detected banned substances in Indian honey and honey based products on 10 different occasions. Each time, an alert was sounded and the contaminated shipments were turned away. Substances found in these consignments included antibiotics like nitrofurans, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, streptomycin, and benzoic acid, used to treat fungal infections and as a food preservative. Another consignment belonging to Lee Bee Impex, a big exporter based in Ludhiana in Punjab, was barred from entering the US market in 2007—the honey was found to have originated in China and had residues of fluoroquinolone.
Tests conducted by Agriculture Processed Food Product Export Development Agency (APEDA) and EIC from 2005 onwards show high levels of antibiotics and heavy metals (see table: Rejected for export). For instance, in 2006, about 14 per cent samples were contaminated with tetracycline. In 2007-08, about 28 per cent samples were contaminated with this ame antibiotic. Of the 362 honey samples it tested in 2009-2010 by the EIC, 29.2 per cent samples had more than the prescribed limit of antibiotics and heavy metals.
An industry insider said that the samples for exports could be a mix of Chinese and Indian honey. The same could be true for the honey sold in the domestic market as well. According to industry sources, as soon as a honey batch is found to be unfit for export to EU and the US, the exporters start claiming it is for domestic consumption. A government official said the rejected batches are either sold domestically or exported to countries with lax health regulations.
No checks on what we eat
This honey, rejected for exports to EU, may be finding its way into the kitchen shelves gullible consumers like Sangeeta Das. There is no way of knowing.
A honey exporter said India does not tax imported honey for value addition and re-export. But if it is imported to be sold in India, then the importer would have to pay 67 per cent duty. But there is no mechanism to ensure they do not blend imported honey with Indian varieties. “All the seven exporters also buy Indian honey and pack and label them for domestic honey sellers like Dabur and Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Trust. So, there is no way to check the origin and quality of honey sold to Indian customers” said an exporter.
There is no agency that checks if the honey, sold in India—imported or domestically produced—meets health specifications. The National Bee Board, a registered society under the Union agriculture ministry, is in talks with a German laboratory to set up honey inspection units in India. At present, India does not even have a C-13 nuclear magnetic resonance analyser used for detecting adulterated honey having high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar.
Defunct food authority
CSE’s analysis of two foreign brands— one from Europe and one from Australia—revealed the samples contained a combination of antibiotics banned in the countries of their origin. These countries have banned Indian honey for contamination.
The only mandatory specifications for honey are contained in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954 (PFA). It defines honey but has no regulations for antibiotics. Food safety regulations in India are supposed to be monitored by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), set up under an act of Parliament. All foods acts, including PFA, were to be repealed once the rules were framed under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. The rules have not been notified till date. So, while the FSSAI draws its mandate from the act, it continues to rely on PFA to frame regulations.
Till the government specifies and enforces food safety regulations, Sangeeta Das and other homemakers like her would be at the mercy of honey brands that make tall claims about their products.
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