On December 2nd, Down To Earth released an extensive investigative report on the menace of adulterated honey and we need to talk about it.
Honey is the sweet, viscous liquid produced in the honey sacs of various bees and this naturally sweet golden liquid is a godsend in many ways. It is widely used as a sweetener. It is rich in antioxidants, enzymes and minerals. It is used to treat burn wounds and pressure ulcers. It is even endorsed as a natural cough remedy by the WHO. And, it tastes good!
The only problem — Beekeeping is expensive. You need to check on the bees, keep track of food stores, look for signs of disease and pests, replace queens if you need to, reduce overcrowding, harvest honey, process it and store it in sealed containers until you are ready to market them. According to reports, it can cost Indian beekeepers as much as ₹ 90–100 to produce a single kilogram of raw honey. So effectively, they need to market their produce at much higher prices if they need to stand a reasonable chance of turning a profit. Unfortunately, that’s not happening either.
As one report in the Hindu Business line notes —
Honey fetched bee-keepers as much as ₹130 a kg in 2015 but now it is down to ₹65–70 a kg.
So clearly we have a problem. Either this is a by-product of supply outstripping demand or there is something amiss here. And according to the report from Down To Earth, there is definitely something else happening here. They contend that prices have been tanking because producers now have alternatives to honey. Well, not technically good alternatives. They’re just cheaper alternatives and they’re easily available. These sugary syrups can pass food safety tests designed by the regulator and it seems they are being imported in massive quantities from….
So if you are in the business of producing cheap honey, you would take some raw honey (that’s fairly expensive) and then you’d mix it with these special sugary syrups to rein in your costs. And voila — Cheap adulterated honey. For instance, consider this special sample called the “all-pass” syrup that features in the investigative report. It’s produced in India and it is specifically designed to beat lab tests. As the report notes —
“We were given a free sample of this “all pass” syrup and told that when we place our order, we will be billed for honey. This was clever as it would mean that if caught, the company would simply brush off the allegations saying that we were sold honey and not “all pass” syrup — there was nothing like this in the official manifest.
The clincher was the price and, of course, our conversation. We got the syrup for Rs 68 per kg, slightly higher than what we were quoted on the phone (Rs 65 per kg). But we were assured that when we placed bulk orders, this price would be negotiated and brought down substantially.”
And when they managed to mix some of this stuff with pure honey and test them in the laboratories, they passed all tests mandated by FSSAI (India’s food regulator). Shocking!!!
But that’s not where the story ends.
On 2nd December 2020, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed that it had sent honey samples from 13 Indian brands to a German laboratory in a bid to put them through a specially designed test called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) — often touted as the gold standard for testing honey. This test is not mandatory for brands marketing honey in India. However, if you are exporting honey, then the government mandates producers to pass this test too.
Unfortunately, only three Indian brands passed the test this time around, including Marico’s Saffola Honey. The shocking bit was that both Dabur and Patanjali failed the tests. However, both companies have since rebuked the CSE investigation and have contested that this is a deliberate ploy to malign their reputation.
But truth be told, it’s not a good look for both companies.
Anyway, last point — How do you prevent something like this if it's so hard to detect?
Well, the investigative report contends that it's hard to design safety tests that can constantly evolve and adapt to identify new adulterants. Rumour has it that companies in China are already producing sugar syrups that can beat NMR. So it’s unlikely to be a fruitful endeavour over time. However, they do believe that the regulator can play an active role in monitoring the supply chain — Keep track of the middlemen, the importers, the beekeepers, the producers, the whole lot and hopefully, this should help us identify some bad apples.
Anyway, what do you think? Is your honey adulterated or is it not?
Let us know your thoughts on Twitter. And we will definitely retweet the most interesting comments :)
Until next time...
Also, if you want to read the full investigative report from Down To Earth, you can click on the link here.