Adulteration business
Down To Earth|December 01, 2020
As tests became more advanced and could detect adulteration, the industry has evolved and found new adulterants

Honey is the most adulterated food in the world

The business of adulteration has constantly evolved to beat laboratory tests

Honey fraud is a big concern across the world

In India, government knows (but is not telling) that something is seriously wrong

Standards for honey purity have been revised again and again

Government has mandated additional and advanced tests for honey that will be exported

THE GLOBALLY accepted definition of honey given by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (fao’s) Codex Alimentarius Commission is “(it) is the natural sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of plants or from the secretions of living parts of the plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of the plants, that bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature”. If honey is adulterated with sugar it is not honey. So, is the honey we consume adulterated with sugar?

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), our food regulator, seems to know something is amiss. In the past few years, it has amended its standards for quality of honey twice and has issued directives to the industry. And each time, the amendment was to “catch” adulteration by one kind of sugar or another. FSSAI even ordered for regulation on the import of sugar syrup as it suspected it was used for adulteration. So, either FSSAI knows what is going on, and is not telling us—the consumers—or, it is fishing around to see if it can find the honey fraud and stop it.

Honey is the most adulterated substance in the world—this is well-known in food circles. What is also known is that every time food regulators get close to checking the cause of adulteration, new ways are found to circumvent and work around this. Honey fraud is a well heeled enterprise. Honeygate is a global story (see map Honeygate, p24).

MANY STEPS FORWARD AND A GIANT LEAP BACKWARD

For a good 60 years, quality standards for honey remained static. Nothing changed till December, 2014 when FSSAI added antibiotic limits to standards for honey. This happened after Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based non-profit, published its 2010 report on antibiotic residues in honey. This report was based on CSE's laboratory tests of popular honey brands that found residues of antibiotics in honey bottles. CSE also pointed out that there were no standards for antibiotic limits in honey that would be sold for domestic consumption—unlike what existed for export.

In 2010, FSSAI issued an advisory to clarify that pesticide and antibiotic residues were not allowed in honey. In 2014, the honey standard was amended to include tolerance limits for antibiotics—how much or how little the residue must be in honey to pass quality standard. Now beekeepers and honey producers were forced to ensure they did not use antibiotics for disease control. Or would do so, with careful management. These limits were brought in as there is growing concern about how bacteria-causing infections in our bodies are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

The 2014 standards seem to have spooked the honey processing industry. It needed to find ways to work around these limits—and what better than to add some sugar syrup into the product to “dilute” it. It could be “simple and effective”.

We don’t know if this happened. But we do know that in 2017, FSSAI issued a draft notification with substantial changes in the honey standard for public comments. In this draft notification, the food regulator, for the first time, included tests to detect sugar made from cane, rice, and other crops like beetroot. The tests were to check adulteration by “foreign” sugars in honey. This draft was issued to catch up with the business of adulteration that had grown and was being detected across the world.

Globally, the first test that was added was for C4 sugar syrups—this comes from plants like corn and sugarcane, which use a photosynthetic pathway called C4. This analytical method was developed by scientists to differentiate the “sugar” in honey from the “sugar” that would come from C4 plants. The 2017 draft included this test.

But globally adulteration business evolved with the sole objective to beat laboratory tests—this meant replacing the type of sugar that could be used for adulteration. To this end, another category of plants was used, this time that used photosynthetic pathway called C3. These plants are rice or beetroot. So, then laboratories came up with isotope tests to detect this adulteration and also Special Marker for Rice Syrup (SMR), Trace Marker for Rice Syrup (TMR), and foreign oligosaccharides, which help detect adulteration from starch-based sugars, like rice syrup.

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