Once or twice a year, an enormous bucket of honey makes its way to a friend’s kitchen counter. After harvesting it from his two hives at a game farm near the Cradle of Humankind, he brings it home, where he lets it settle for a few days. He then steadily taps out jars of the glorious gloop for sale to friends, neighbours and colleagues.
Knowing a guy who is “in the honey” may be an unsolicited gift. Globally, honey is one of the top 10 products most susceptible to food fraud, according to a report for the European Parliament.
Adulterated honey — honey that is mixed with sweeteners, syrups or any non-bee product — has become a major concern for some of the world’s largest honey-consuming countries, such as the United States and Germany.
It has come hand in hand with worry about imports from major producers such as China, where it is claimed that industrialised production methods, where “unripe” honey is harvested early and mechanically dried, are used to produce a poorer-quality honey for less cost.
Honey has been at the heart of one of the largest food fraud cases in the US, after a German food group and its executives were accused of disguising Chinese honey imports to avoid higher tariffs by shipping it through other countries including Russia and Malaysia.
South Africa is not immune to these worries; honey adulteration can take place once a product has been imported. A perusal of honey on retail shelves will typically reveal that much of our honey is imported and is a blend of honey from a range of countries stretching from China to Argentina.
According to Wandile Sihlobo, agricultural economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, there has been growing concern about cheap and adulterated honey, particularly from Asian countries.
Although the extent of the problem in South Africa is not clear, imports of honey have risen from 476 tonnes in 2001 to 4 206 tonnes last year, he said. On average, about 76% of those imports are from China.
“The question is whether we are getting the right quality of honey,” he said.
Data at a granular level on South Africa’s honey industry is difficult to come by but, anecdotally, small domestic producers are having a tough time competing with cheap imports, Sihlobo noted.
Mokgadi Mabela, a third-generation beekeeper and founder of Native Nosi, which produces honey and honey products, is one such producer.
The local industry needs to see better governance and management, she told the Mail & Guardian.
“We are producing a quality product and we are not able to compete with the imported honey.”
The industrial processes used to make honey in countries such as China adds to the problem, said Mabela. Consumers are not protected and may be buying a product that is “not honey at all”.
Along with the threat of cheap imports, Mabela says the local industry has also been hard hit by environmental factors, such as the recent drought.
South Africa has “ideal conditions for beekeeping”, she said, but urgently needs an influx of a new generation of beekeepers, with greater support and better management by government.
But just how cheap is cheap?
According to Mike Miles, chairman of the South African Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio), imported honey from places such as China can cost anywhere from R20 to R30 a kilogram, whereas the price of local honey ranges from R55 to R70 a kilogram.
“It does tend to make it nonviable for a lot of beekeepers to produce honey,” he said.
As a result, many commercial beekeepers no longer rely on an income solely from producing honey. They are moving towards providing “more remunerative” pollination services to farmers who require bees to pollinate their crops. Imported honey from a reputable honey packer must comply with requirements of the department of health, as well as regulations set by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, he said. It must also be irradiated to protect against importing and spreading diseases that could threaten local bees.
“We don’t at the moment have a problem with imported honey if it is coming through the proper channels,” he said.
Importers bottle the honey in South Africa, often blending it with local honey. This can be where problems arise, because some bottlers introduce additives to make the honey go further, he explained. These can include fructose, one of the main components of honey, as well as industrially made syrups.
These don’t change the appearance of the honey but do change the taste. Honey is an easily adulterated product, however, and difficult to detect on the shelf, he said.
“We at Sabio have been liaising with [the department] to test this honey and trying to get them to take action against the culprits who are adulterating the honey,” he said. “We’ve given them samples and we’ve given them tests to prove it’s adulterated.”
But one of the major importers of honey into South Africa believes the picture is more nuanced.
Brett Falconer, of Highveld Honey Farms, a commercial beekeeper and one of the largest importers of honey into South Africa, said legitimate firms that import honey must meet the technical specifications of what constitutes honey, outlined in regulation 835, or the “honey standard” set by the department.
The regulation is based on international norms and these are the specifications that Falconer’s international suppliers must meet. The regulation includes among others the definition of honey, as well as the standards for grading honey, how it should be labelled and tests that can be used to grade honey.
Added to this his company is certified under international food certification standards, which require that he audit his suppliers, including those from China.
According to Falconer, there are no official national figures recording the exact amount of honey produced locally or the extent of consumption in the country. Production estimates range from anywhere between 1 500 to 2 000 tonnes, and consumption is estimated at anywhere between 2 000 and 4 000 tonnes.
What is clear is that South Africa is short of a few thousand tonnes of honey each year, said Falconer.
This shortage had been exacerbated by the drought over the past three years. At the same time the market for honey has also been growing, as with all other foods, with a growing middle class, he added.
Blending imported honey with local honey allows producers like him to supply a uniform product that has a relatively consistent colour, taste and consistency, he added.
Some beekeepers argue that irradiating honey reduces its quality and destroys some of its unique properties. But this is done to protect against diseases that pose a threat to South Africa’s bees, noted Falconer, particularly American foulbrood — a bacterial disease that is wreaking havoc in global bee populations. The bacteria can survive in the honey, said Falconer, and irradiation is a form of protection against this.
Although there are cases of adulterated honey on the shelves, Falconer did not believe legal importers were the source of the problem.
The department, he said, simply did not have the manpower to prevent all of it entering the country and beekeepers have to be “the eyes and ears of the department”.
Department ‘is deeply concerned’
Steve Galane, the acting spokesperson for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries department, said the department is “deeply concerned about the adulteration of honey and is doing all in its power to address the situation” by investigating complaints.
Regarding honey on retail shelves, the provisions of the National Consumer Protection Act meant retailers automatically assume accountability for their products, Galane said. But smaller businesses such as tuck shops in informal settlements might not observe these requirements, and the department is “presently seized with this matter”.
In terms of regulations, honey the sweet foodstuff is the sugary excretion that insects derive from the nectar of flowers and it must also come from the honeycomb made by honeybees or stingless bees.
When any substance is added to honey, it may not be sold or referred to as honey, Galane said.
The honey import regime ensured that pest free, “safe” honey is imported but did not restrict the volume of honey imports, Galane said.
Some imported honey is blended with local honey under the current regulations and laws but the countries of origin had to be indicated on the label, he added. — Lynley Donnelly