Honey — adulteration and now botulism

Monday, 19 November, 2018

Honey — adulteration and now botulism

Poor old honey — first involved in adulteration allegations and now implicated in four cases of infant botulism.

Since August, four babies in Texas have been hospitalised with botulism and it is thought they got the disease after being given honey-filled dummies that had been purchased in Mexico.

The honey filling the dummies isn’t there to be consumed by the baby, but is used to make the dummy soft and pliable. However, a small hole or rupture means the honey can get into a baby’s mouth by accident. And if this happens and the honey contains botulinum spores and the baby is less than 12 months old, you have a potential disaster.

Soil, mud, water, the intestinal tracts of animals and honey are known sources and reservoirs for Clostridia spores which can multiply in a baby’s immature digestive system and produce the botulism toxin. It is this toxin that causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis and even death in children under one year. Older children and adults are not affected as their more mature gut microbiome and digestive systems can deal with the Clostridium botulinum spores.

Some of the published scientific studies appear to suggest that a figure of around 10% of all honey typically contains a small number of botulism spores. It also seems that unpasteurised honeys may be slightly more likely to have the spores.

In Australia, Clostridium botulinum infection is an ‘urgent’ notifiable condition and must be notified by medical practitioners and pathology services immediately by telephone upon initial diagnosis (presumptive or confirmed).

In humans, contaminated food items associated with botulinum toxin include:

  • For infants: Honey, home-canned vegetables and fruits, corn syrup.
  • For children and adults: Home-canned foods with a low acid content, improperly canned commercial foods, home-canned or fermented fish, herb-infused oils, baked potatoes in aluminium foil, cheese sauce, bottled garlic, foods held warm for extended periods of time.

Between 2003 and 2015 four cases of infant botulism were diagnosed in the Mildura region. It is not known if honey was the source of the disease in these children. Californian research has shown an association between dust storms and earthquakes and botulism incidence.

The FDA is reminding parents and caregivers not to give honey to infants or children younger than one year of age. This includes dummies filled with or dipped in honey.

Adulteration uncertainty

“Testing uncertainty” has led the ACCC to conclude its investigation into allegations Capilano Honey breached the Australian Consumer Law in relation to representations about its ‘Allowrie’ honey and other products.

The investigation followed allegations in the media that a number of honey products including Capilano’s ‘Allowrie’ honey, labelled ‘pure’ and ‘100% honey’ were adulterated with sugar syrup.

The allegations were based on results arising from a testing process known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) testing. NMR testing can be used for a variety of applications, but has only recently emerged as a testing method for honey adulteration.

The ACCC is advised NMR testing is not yet reliable enough to determine whether honey is adulterated and therefore should not be used as a basis to support legal action. This is consistent with the approach of regulators in the UK, US and the EU.

The ACCC’s investigation found Capilano had taken steps to provide assurance, and did not uncover any other evidence that supported the allegation Capilano’s ‘Allowrie’ honey was adulterated with sugar syrup.

“During the course of our investigation, however, it also became evident that there is low confidence in the current test method (the C4 test) used to detect adulterated honey.

“Governments and research agencies around the world are investigating alternative testing methods, including NMR, but these are not yet developed to the point they can be used with sufficient confidence,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Mick Keogh.

Since 2015, the Department of Agriculture has tested imported honey using the C4 test, which did not detect adulteration in ‘Allowrie’ honey or some supermarket private-label products.

“The ACCC understands that where there are different tests for honey products that produce different results, it can cause significant frustration among consumers and industry,” Keogh said.

“We understand the Department of Agriculture, which is best placed to determine the most appropriate form of honey testing, is reviewing testing standards.

“It’s important that consumers have confidence in the claims made about the foods they purchase, including honey. The ACCC urges the honey industry and the Department of Agriculture develop an agreed approach to testing, and implement more robust programs to provide greater assurance about the integrity of their products,” Keogh said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Daniel Vincek

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