Nectar, a symbol of well-being – the honey that millions buy believing it is pure, natural and healthy - is contaminated with high levels of antibiotics, fed to bees and is bad for our health, a leading environmental organisation in India has found.
The findings are from a new study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, which had earlier tested colas for pesticides and toys for poisonous chemicals. The findings had shocked the establishment in teh country.
The new CSE study, which tested leading brands of honey, found high levels of antibiotics – from the banned chloramphenicol to broad spectrum ciprofloxacin and erythromycin – in almost all brands sold in the market.
The leading Indian honey producers - Dabur, Baidyanath, Patanjali Ayurveda, Khadi, Himalaya – all had two-four antibiotics in their products, much above the stipulated standards. But what is even worse, CSE said, is that the foreign brands had high levels of antibiotics and would certainly be illegal in their own countries.
None of the brands have so far come out with denials. All efforts to contact the companies concerned also failed.
“It is clear that foreign companies are taking advantage of the lack of regulations in India. After all, if our government does not care about the health of its people, why should these companies care?” said Sunita Narain, director, CSE, at the release of the study’s findings in New Delhi. “We have standards for antibiotic contamination in the honey we export. Government even tests and certifies that exported honey meets health and safety regulations. But we do not have any standards for domestic honey. This is clearly unacceptable.”
Besides the presence of the contaminants, investigations by CSE has also exposed the murky underbelly of the international honey trade, where fraud, deceit and illegal trade practices rule the roost.
CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Lab (PML) tested 12 branded honey samples for six antibiotics, and found antibiotics in 11 samples. The tested samples were bought randomly from various markets in Delhi in July 2009. Of the 12, 10 were Indian brands and two were imported brands.
The six antibiotics that PML looked for were oxytetracycline, chloramphenicol, ampicillin, erythromycin, eurofloxacin and ciprofloxacin. Among the domestic brands tested were Dabur Honey of Dabur India Ltd, which holds over 75 percent of the market share in the branded segment; Himalaya Forest Honey of Himalaya Drug Company, one of India’s oldest Ayurveda drug companies; Patanjali Pure Honey of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd, Haridwar; and Baidyanath Wild Flower Honey of Shree Baidyanath Ayurved Bhavan Pvt Ltd (Kolkata), which has about 10 per cent share in the branded honey market .
The two imported brands were Capilano Pure & Natural Honey of Capilano Honey Ltd, the market leader in Australia, exporting honey to over 40 countries; and Nectaflor Natural Blossom Honey of Narimpex AG with its production site in Biel, Switzerland.
* Oxytetracycline or OTC was found in 50 percent of the samples in the range of 27 to 250 microgram per kg (μg/kg). This is almost 3 to 25 times higher than the 10 μg/kg standard fixed by the Indian government’s Export Inspection Council (EIC) for exported honey. The highest level was detected in Khadi Honey of Khadi Gram Udyog Sewa Samiti, Madhyapura, Bihar.
* Chloramphenicol, banned by the EU was found in 25 percent of the samples, with its levels 9 to 15 times higher than the 0.3 μg/kg standard fixed by the EIC. The highest level was detected in Gold Honey of Vardhman Food & Pharmaceuticals.
* Ampicillin was found in 67 percent of the samples at a concentration of 10 to 614 μg/kg. The highest level was detected in Nectaflor Natural Blossom Honey of Switzerland. There is no standard for ampicillin in honey in any country because it is not supposed to be used in beekeeping. It is, therefore, an unauthorised or illegal substance in honey. Similarly, enrofloxacin, ciprofloxacin and erythromycin, which do not have any standards either, are being illegally used.
* Dabur Honey had 91.3 μg/kg of OTC, which is nine times the EIC standard. It also had 26.6 μg/kg of ampicillin and 88.7 μg/kg of enrofloxacin. Essentially, the sample was found to be non-compliant with the EIC standards and would be rejected if placed for exports to the EU or the US.
* Of the six antibiotics tested, the highest number - five – were detected in the Swiss Nectaflor Natural Blossom Honey sample. It had 112 μg/kg of OTC, 11 times the EIC standard. Chloramphenicol was found at a level of 3.6 μg/kg, which is 12 times over the EIC standard. It also had highest levels of ampicillin and erythromycin. The sample was found to be non-compliant with the EIC as well as EU regulations.
* The Capilano Pure & Natural Honey sample was found to contain three antibiotics and was non-compliant with the EIC export standards as well as some standards imposed in Australia itself.
* The fact that more than one antibiotic was found in the samples indicates that the prevalent practice is to collect honey from different sources and then blend them before packing and distributing for sale. This brings into question the issue of traceability of honey.
In India, honey is currently regulated under three legislations, all of which define honey as a “natural product” and lay down standards for its composition and quality (sucrose content, total reducing sugars, hydroxymethyl furfural, moisture content etc) ― but there are no standards for antibiotics or other contaminants in honey.
The Export Inspection Council (EIC) has however set antibiotic standards for the honey that is exported. But the Authority, despite being in existence for almost four years, has failed to do anything to safeguard consumer health. Says Narain: “In fact, it only works for the benefit of big business to undermine our bodies and our health. Our study on honey is only one indicator of the takeover of our food business and tells us that action is needed fast and urgent. We cannot allow business to be more important than the food we eat.”