Honey fraud creates a sticky situation

By Nichola Murphy
Wednesday, 05 September, 2018

Honey fraud creates a sticky situation

Recent allegations about potential honey fraud have caused controversy, with some blaming the validity of tests and supermarkets unsure about whether to stop selling products. So can you trust that what you’re spreading on your toast in the mornings is definitely honey, or is there a chance it is an adulterated version?

Australia’s biggest honey company, Capilano, has come under fire after tests at an international science lab specialising in detecting honey fraud — obtained by Fairfax Media and the ABC’s 7.30 — found almost half of supermarket honey samples were adulterated.

Law firm King & Wood Mallesons commissioned Germany’s Quality Services International (QSI) lab on behalf of horticulturalist Robert Costa to conduct two tests on the honey samples: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) screening and the C4 sugar test.

28 blended and imported honey samples from Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and IGA stores around Australia were collected and tested, including samples from Allowrie, IGA’s Black & Gold private label and ALDI’s Bramwell’s private label brand.

While all samples passed the C4 test, which is the official one used in Australia, the NMR test found 12 of the 28 samples were not 100% pure honey. Adulteration was found in four of the six IGA Black and Gold private label products, two of six ALDI Bramwell’s private label brands and six out of eight Capilano’s Allowrie budget branded bottles.

Testing controversy

Fraudsters are mixing honey with other syrups like rice and beet that can’t be detected by adulteration tests, and selling it on for a higher price. 

Capilano’s Allowrie Mixed Blossom Honey is made using up to 70% imported honey and marketed as 100% honey. Despite tests suggesting this was not the case, the company maintained the authenticity of its honey.

Dr Ben McKee, Managing Director of Capilano Honey, said, “We stand by our Allowrie honey as being 100% pure honey and the testing we employ on every batch.”

The company reassured that it uses validated internationally recognised testing and criticised the reliability of the NMR test, saying it produces inconsistent results among different batches and laboratories.

“We call on the industry to work to prove up the NMR test so that it matches the robustness of results from other testing currently relied on internationally,” said McKee. “NMR tests are conducted at European laboratories and the method’s essential flaw is the reliance on a database of reference honeys, and the database is underrepresented for honeys from our region.”

Dr Nural Cokcetin, a microbiologist who specialises in the medicinal properties of honey, explained, “NMR can give us a ‘fingerprint’ of what is in a sample — and this fingerprint is matched back to a reference database to identify the components within that sample. If different testing labs use different databases, there can be instances where the same sample can have different results depending on the lab. With an extensive and universally used database, the NMR method can be extremely sensitive and powerful in detecting food adulteration.”

QSI maintains that the NMR test is accurate and the database is quite extensive. QSI’s Managing Director Gudrun Beckh, who has been testing honey for almost 30 years, told 7.30 that NMR screening could pinpoint country of origin and botanical origin, and said the recent results found the adulteration came from the Chinese aspect of the honey.

Despite potential limitations of the NMR test, many argue that it remains a more accurate option than the traditional C4 test. This detects the presence of C4 sugars from plants like sugar cane and corn, but it can have some difficulties.

“When sugar syrup is used from a C3 plant, or a mixture of C3 and C4 plants, the C4 sugar test cannot be used. The new sugar syrups using the C4 test pass undetected when added to honey. This has left the industry in a difficult situation as, worldwide, there is no accepted system by which adulterated honey can be detected,” explained Dr Liz Barbour, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Honey Bee Products.

This has led to the industry considering the NMR test as its standard testing method.

Preventing food fraud

King & Wood Mallesons said they would send the results of the tests to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In the meantime, supermarkets have been left unsure about what to do with the products in question.

ALDI told Fairfax and 7.30 that if investigations conclude products are adulterated, it would stop selling them and take further actions with the supplier. Woolworths similarly said it would work with its supplier to review the claims, while Coles had already removed Allowrie products from its shelves in July for unrelated reasons.

Accurate labelling and food testing is intended to protect consumers from adulterated products. Honey is supposedly one of the most commonly mislabelled foods, and even the presence of better labelling would not necessarily stop fraudsters.

Professor Christine Parker from the Melbourne Law School said, “Even though we have a strict law about what honey should mean, it isn’t always well monitored and enforced, and some falsely labelled honey may well end up on our supermarket shelves.”

Only about 5% of imported honey is tested, and food produced in Australia is rarely tested to ensure it complies with descriptions. Dr Nadine Chapman, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney and an expert on the Australian honey bee industry, said there should be a higher focus on testing food, and suggested mislabelled products should be sent back to prevent the honey fraud industry remaining profitable.

Costa, who bankrolled the honey sample tests, said he was concerned about the impact of cheap imported honey on the industry as it makes it difficult for local producers to compete. The best way to ensure you are eating pure, unadulterated honey and support the local industry is to buy 100% Australian honey.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/MaraZemgaliete

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