From the desk of Karen Constable, principal consultant at Food Fraud Advisors.
My daughter loves honey and eats a lot of it. She spent a few months in Europe last year – mostly in Spain – and told me the honey there had no flavour. She said it tasted like sugar water.
‘Honey’ that doesn’t taste like honey may have been diluted with water and adulterated with non-bee sugar syrups: food fraud. Honey is one of the most fraud-affected foods on the planet, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that “honey in Europe just doesn’t taste like honey”.
But I was surprised. Europe takes its honey seriously. And it takes food fraud seriously, too. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear about flavourless probable-fraud-affected ‘honey’ in other parts of the world, but I was surprised to hear my daughter say it was “everywhere” in Europe.
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The last time I saw Europe-wide honey fraud results they were quite good. For example, a honey-checking operation that was part of the famous Europol/Interpol anti-food-fraud activity, Operation Opson X, in 2021, found that of the 495 honey samples tested, 93% were compliant. Separately, a European honey fraud survey in 2015 – 2017 reported only 14% ‘suspicious’ samples.Seven percent, fourteen percent, as non-compliance rates, they are hardly fantastic but they don’t match my daughter’s claim that all the honey she tasted in Europe was affected.
But new results have just been published for a multi-year European anti-honey-fraud operation and they are pretty bad. Of the 320 samples tested in the operation, almost half were suspected of being non-compliant with the provisions of the European honey standard (the Honey Directive).
What is going on here? Why are these results so much worse than past surveys?
Firstly the samples that were tested do not represent the European-wide honey market. The sampling focussed only on imported honey and only on adulteration with sugar syrups.
Secondly, the methods used in this most recent round of testing are almost certainly different from previous European surveys. The test methods are only suitable to identify “suspicions of fraud” by looking for chemical markers of extraneous sugars (presence/absence only) and they are different from the officially-approved honey test methods.
The European Joint Research Council (JRC) says these methods are “the most sophisticated methods” currently available but they have not been validated and they are not part of the regulatory framework.
For this enforcement activity, the analytical results were used only as a tool to decide whether further investigations were needed to uncover fraud in the honey supply chain. Further investigations included on-site inspections, examination of documents, computers and phone records.
Investigators reported that fraudsters appear to be deliberately adjusting the levels of adulterants so that they can evade border control checks. The European Union’s Food Safety Commission says that officially-approved honey authenticity test methods are not keeping up with the fraudsters, claiming that analytical methods used for border control checks “lack sufficient sensitivity to detect low and intermediate levels of sugar adulterations”.
The investigations began more than eighteen months ago, but it appears likely that there are still high levels of fraud-affected honeys in the European market now. More than sixty percent of importers were found to have imported at least one suspicious consignment.
In fact, the European Food Safety Commission, last week reported that “there is a strong suspicion that a large part of the honey imported from non-EU countries and found suspicious by the JRC of being adulterated remains present and undetected on the EU market” (source).
Honey fraud is difficult to detect and expensive for government agencies to investigate. Fraud perpetrators have been shown to use sophisticated systems to evade detection, and these investigations appear to show that importers and exporters are working together to defraud customers and governments.
If your business purchases honey, food fraud mitigation activities must go beyond checking documents or relying on letters of guarantee.
As a consumer, it is impossible to tell whether honey is fraud-affected or not, but if you suspect honey of being fraudulent, contact the brand owner as a first step and share your concerns.
…. Or you could seek out incense honey, a premium mono-floral honey from the incense flower in Portugal, for which all samples in a recent analytical test were found to be authentic 😊.
*** This post originally appeared in Issue #81 of The Rotten Apple Newsletter. Subscribe to The Rotten Apple to get unique, helpful food safety and food fraud information direct to your inbox every Monday ***