In the last few years, there has been a considerable buzz surrounding the presence of antibiotics in honey. Here we take a deeper look at why and how this impacts you, the honey consumer The western honeybee, Apis mellifera is divided into two big groups – those from Europe and those from Africa. The ones from Europe have, until recently, produced much of the worlds export honey. The fact that European bees are relatively sickly, genetically weak bees, ensures that honey produced in areas where these bees are kept will sometimes contain traces of antibiotics and various other medications used to treat bees. In some cases, as with all forms of agriculture, beekeepers cheat the system and use medications that are not permitted, and this can lead to these substances turning up in honey. In the case of the 2002 honey antibiotic scandal, the antibiotic chloramphenicol was found in honey imported from China to South Africa, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA.
Imported food contamination scandals however often provide producers with an opportunity to protect their markets with so called non-tariff trade barriers. In all countries where contaminated Chinese honey has been found, this honey has been recalled from the shelves. In the case of Canada, all Chinese honey was recalled in a blanket withdrawal and consumers were advised by means of the media of the dangers of consuming contaminated Chinese honey. Two years later, contaminated Canadian honey was found but was not withdrawn, despite it containing roughly the same levels of antibiotics and little warning was passed out to the general public. Honey produced by American and just about every other bee keeping nation has been found at times to contain traces of antibiotics, but is generally not withdrawn with the same enthusiasm as Chinese honey.
In South Africa, similar sagas have presented themselves, and the South African Bee Industry Organisation has in some ways controlled damage to the bee industry. In a media statement made by the South African Department of Health on 4 April 2007, the DOH reports that of 61 samples tested, all 10 imported samples tested negative for antibiotics, yet 3 local samples out of 51 samples tested positive for antibiotics. Media attention surrounding the antibiotic scandal, assisted and fanned in many cases by beekeepers, resulted in a nationwide withdrawal of certain honey products and Chinese honey is now perceived as a generally contaminated honey by consumers.
In Japan, I was fortunate to attend Foodex 2007, a food expo hosted by the government of Japan to allow producers to show products to Japanese retailers. Japan imports more food than it produces, hence this is a very big show. All products which enter the Japanese market are subjected to the most thorough quality control checks imaginable, as Japanese standards are exceptionally high with regards to food safety. China has emerged as the major supplier of honey products into Japan, quality, quantity, and most importantly the price of Chinese honey products, which tend to be roughly 30% lower than the nearest competition from Argentina and increasingly, Brazil being the deciding factors. Chinese honey is up to 80% cheaper than South African honey. On speaking to honey importers I was told that they do quality control on honey before it is shipped, from anywhere in the world, as every country that Japan imports from has at times tested positive for antibiotics.
Hence it appears that the "Contaminated Chinese Honey" saga is more of a spook which is endlessly maintained by beekeepers in other countries who fear losing their markets to more competitive Chinese products. For those who look to the future it is important to realize what effect the use of such tactics can have on the African economy in general.
China has a rapidly growing, manufacturing centered economy that consumes resources. Africa is a resource exporting economy. The USA is a net importer of manufactured goods and an exporter of food. Much of that food is pollinated by bees, who are currently sick and dying with various unknown diseases, resulting in reduced food production, and hence exports from the US. Much of that food would have gone to China. China produces a lot of its own food, and farmers produce honey as a by product of that food production. If Chinese honey cannot be sold due to constant consumer scares created by beekeepers globally, the cost of Chinese food will increase. At the same time the cost of imported bee pollinated crops from the USA will increase for China. The result is that the basic costs of food will rise in China and hence the cost of manufacturing will increase, and hence inflation will increase and China will be forced to raise interest rates. Many countries in Africa (including South Africa) as well as the USA have tended to borrow cheap Asian money. If interest rates increase on this money, it will have a noticeable knock on effect in our local economies causing interest rates here to rise and local consumers will then only be able to afford cheaper imported honey anyway. In many ways it will be our own fault for using unfair scare tactics to protect our local honey market.