foodwatch demands better detection methods and transparency for consumers
Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Vienna, 23rd March 2023. This is both a shocking revelation and an admission of weakness. "A significant proportion of honey imported into Europe is suspected of being fraudulent, but often goes undetected," says the report entitled "From the Hives" published today by the European Commission. Of the 320 batches of honey tested by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) laboratory for the Commission, 46% were not really honey. The fraudulent copies contain sugar syrups made from rice, wheat or sugar beet. This is totally forbidden, yet these products reach consumers. For foodwatch, this alarming result shows that the European market is a real sieve that allows fraudsters to sell their fake products, with little control.
EU consumers need to know when their food is fraudulent
Controls and sanctions are the responsibility of the Member States. However, to do this to a correct level the authorities must dedicate resources commensurate with the challenge and make it their priority to inform consumers of the fraud. Although these illegal pots of honey are sold in our supermarkets, no information is given to citizens on the products concerned. This lack of transparency on fraudulent food must be urgently corrected, says foodwatch. Food fraud is a crime and it must be talked about openly to ensure citizens know what is happening with their food.
"In Europe, we have strong food regulations to protect consumers. However, this new investigation shows that ten thousands of tonnes of fraudulent honey have been entering the EU. European consumers have been shopping fraudulent honey in supermarkets for years without knowing about it,” says Ingrid Kragl of foodwatch. “National control services, but also private laboratories, have failed to detect the fraud because their means are insufficient and they do not (yet) use the new method developed by the JRC which allows to spot far more adulterations on imported fake honey.” Ingrid Kragl is author of the book on food fraud "Manger du faux pour de vrai. Les scandales de la fraude alimentaire" published by Robert Laffont.
New method shows: 46% of honey batches imported into EU are suspicious of being fraudulent
This rate is considerably higher than during the previous EU-wide coordinated control plan in 2015-17, when only 14% of the samples analysed did not comply with the reference criteria established to assess the authenticity of honey. What has happened in the meantime? The JRC has developed a new methodology to test honey. In the past, fraudsters diluted honey with sugar syrups made from corn starch or sugar cane. Knowing that they were being watched, they replaced these ingredients with syrups made mainly from rice, wheat or sugar beet. The new JRC methodology can now detect these new ingredients. The problem remains however that this new methodology is not yet recognised and used by the official laboratories in the Member States or by the private laboratories that carry out the tests for the industry. This is clearly the next step that needs to take place.
“foodwatch is now asking for a political shake up: fraud is massive and right in front of our eyes. But it remains a taboo. We want the means of control to be equal to the challenge and a harmonised methodology to identify food fraud. Citizens have the right to know if they are consuming illegal products. Action needs to be taken on honey now – but it must not stop there", says Ingrid Kragl.
EU’s barriers against food fraud are leaking
While the European Commission report does not claim to be a thorough reflection of the honey market in the EU, it does give a good insight into the extent of honey adulteration in honey imports from third countries.
- Of the 21 samples taken in France, only 4 were real honey, 5 batches of suspected fraudulent honey were destined for the French market and a dozen non-compliant batches were destined for Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands.
- Of the 63 samples taken in Belgium, almost 20 batches of suspected fraudulent honey were destined for the Belgian market, while other non-compliant honeys were destined for France, Germany and Spain.
- Of the 32 samples taken in Germany, half were suspected of being fraudulent and were mainly destined for the German market. Germany alone accounts for about one third of European honey imports from third countries.
- Of the 103 samples taken in Poland, almost half were suspected of being fraudulent and destined for the Polish market, with non-compliant batches also destined for the Netherlands and Belgium.
The samples were taken mainly in the major ports where the fraudulent products arrive before travelling on European routes: Antwerp, Hamburg, Barcelona, Le Havre, etc. and the Polish-Ukrainian border. Of the 95 importers targeted, two thirds had imported at least once a batch of honey suspected of being adulterated with sugar syrups. The risk to consumers' health is low, but it is a crime to sell one product pretending to be another.
The fraudsters are extremely clever
Fraudulent dilution of honey with sugar syrups pays big dividends and the risk of getting caught is small. On average, honey imported into Europe costs €2.17 per kilo, whereas sugar syrups made from rice cost between €0.40 and €0.60 per kilo. Europe imports 175,000 tonnes of honey per year - it is the world's second largest importer of honey after the United States - to cover 40% of its consumption. The European Union is therefore very dependent on these imports from third countries.
"If 46% of imported honey is potentially fraudulent, this means that more than 80,000 tonnes of fake honey are sold and consumed in Europe every year... We are talking here only about imports from countries outside Europe. This does not include intra-European fraud, of course, which adds to this figure. All of this is completely opaque to consumers," says Ingrid Kragl of foodwatch.
OLAF's participation in this major European operation has made it possible to demonstrate, through its investigations, that there can be collusion between some operators. Exporters, importers, blenders and their customers (industry, retailers) sometimes agree to:
- use EU-accredited laboratories to adjust honey and sugar mixtures to avoid detection by customers and official authorities before the operation begins;
- use additives and colourings to imitate other botanical sources of honey;
- use sugar syrups to adulterate honey and lower its price;
- deliberately masking the true geographical origin of honey by falsifying traceability information.
For now, the European Commission urges the Member States and operators to take responsibility. However, it is difficult to strengthen import controls as there is no list of establishments authorised to export honey to the EU. foodwatch fears that the loophole will continue.
In France, where foodwatch has been campaigning on the issue for several years, more than 43,000 people have signed the petition calling for transparency on food fraud.