A significant proportion of honey imported into the EU is suspected to be fraudulently adulterated with added syrups, according to a new Commission-led analysis, marking a substantial increase from previous years.
As it stands, the EU does not produce enough honey to meet demand and imports some 40% from third countries. But this has left European producers battling with increasing low-priced imports, notably from China, which European producers cannot compete with.
To get a clearer picture of the situation, the analysis was spearheaded by the European Commission’s DG SANTE, together with the national authorities of 18 countries that are part of the EU Food Fraud Network, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).
The analysis, released on Thursday (23 March), found that 46% of the 320 samples of imported honey – taken randomly between November 2021 and February 2022 and analysed by the JRC – were likely tampered with.
On this basis, 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”, it concluded.
While the testing method was insufficient to ascertain adulteration, it gives an idea that samples are “suspicious to be adulterated” and thus not compliant with the EU’s Honey Directive.
Honey naturally contains sugars and, as per the EU rules on the matter, must remain pure, meaning that it cannot have ingredients added to it. Adulteration occurs when ingredients such as water or inexpensive sugar syrups are artificially added to increase the volume of honey.
While the risk to human health is considered low, such practices defraud consumers and jeopardise EU producers who face unfair competition from products containing illicit, cheap ingredients.
The rate found in this most recent analysis was considerably higher than the one obtained in 2015-17, which stood at 14%, showing a worrying upward trend.
The highest absolute number of suspicious consignments originated from China (74%), but honey originating from Turkey had the highest relative proportion of suspicious samples (93%).
Meanwhile, honey imported from the UK had an even higher suspicion rate (100%), which researchers said was likely the result of honey produced in other countries and further blended in the UK before being re-exported to the EU.
In total, more than half (57%) of the operators had exported honey consignments suspected of being adulterated with extraneous sugars, while more than 60% of the operators imported at least one suspicious consignment.
“The EU is an importer of honey as the internal demand is higher than our domestic production. It is important that we remain vigilant against any abuse,” Ville Itälä, Director-General of OLAF, said.
He added that while the most frequent type of fraud with honey happens via adulteration, a second investigation also found instances of origin fraud, with labels claiming false origins of the product.
“This action served to raise attention, call for order, and deter any fraudulent practices,” he concluded, calling for a proper follow-up of suspicions.
Reacting to the findings, the EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA called on EU decision-makers to “act now to avoid the wrecking of the profession”, which they say could lead to a substantial decline of honeybees on the continent.
Stanislav Jaš, chairman of the EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA’s honey working party, said that the findings explain “why we are going through a real agricultural disaster in the EU.”
Echoing recent calls from EU member states for tighter origin labelling and traceability, the association is calling for obligatory origin labelling with “percentage shares in descending order”, as well as reinforced national controls and systematic checks of imported honey batches based on improved methods combined with proof of traceability from hive to pot.
By Natasha Foote,