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Sugars-Adulteration and Antibiotics Residues Detected in Honey - CHOICE # 441 (July 15, 2013)

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When you buy natural pure honey, probably the last thing you expect is syrup. This is the shocking revelation of a recent Consumer Council test on 55 samples of honey.

The results indicated that as many as 14 samples, or up to one-quarter of all samples, were adulterated with sugars.

The CODEX Standard for Honey stipulates that honey shall not have added to it any food ingredient, including food additives, nor shall any other additions be made other than honey. It should be natural and pure.

Out of the 14 sugars-adulterated samples, 12 claimed that they were natural or pure honey and among them 7 claimed to be 100% natural or 100% pure.

The levels of adulteration could not be quantified with precision in the test but 4 of the samples in question were considered to be adulterated with a comparatively high amount of sugars suspected to be syrup from sweet corn, sugar cane, rice or other sugars- or starch-containing produce.

While it is not harmful to health, it should not be there in the first place.

The problem was somehow more prevalent with the more expensive manuka (the name referring to certain plants) honey samples (priced from $39.6 to $151.2 per 100g). 8 of the sugars-adulterated samples were found in the manuka honey category out of a total of 15 samples. The remainders 6 sugars-adulterated honey were among the 40 less costly honey samples (priced from $4.9 to $35.2 per 100g).

The Council has referred the findings on sugars-adulteration to the Customs and Excise Department for consideration whether the Trade Descriptions Ordinance has been breached.

In 2006, the Consumer Council also performed a similar test focusing on safety - antibiotics residues in honey. The test revealed the presence of chloramphenicol, which is prohibited under the law of Hong Kong. Chloramphenicol is associated with a rare but potentially life threatening bone marrow side effect called aplastic anemia.

Fortunately, no such antibiotics residue was found in any of the samples in this test.

Nonetheless, small quantities of antibiotics residues including streptomycins, sulfonamides, tetracyclines and quinolones, were found in 6 of the samples. For example, exposure to sulfamethoxazole (a kind of sulfonamides) upon normal consumption of the sample found with the highest level of sulfamethoxazole was well within the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) set by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing - unless over 11.5 jars (4?kg) of the sample concerned is to be consumed by an adult weighing 60 kg daily, the ADI would then be exceeded.

Medical professionals and pharmacists have cautioned that prolonged consumption of low level of antibiotics in food may lead to the development of anti-microbial resistance. Infections caused by resistant micro-organisms often fail to respond to conventional antibiotic treatment, resulting in prolonged illness, higher medical costs and even higher risk of death.

At present, in Hong Kong, there is no specific law governing the level of antibiotics in honey. Normal consumption of honey samples in the test, according to the Centre for Food Safety, should not incur adverse health effect.

In view of the potential health hazard, the Consumer Council is supportive of stricter regulatory oversight over antibiotics residues contamination in honey.

Traces of the pesticide residue amitraz were also found in another 6 honey samples. But the amount was far below the maximum level permitted under the EU Directive and does not warrant any health concern.

And for the first time ever, analysis was conducted on the plant species of pollen in the honey samples to determine the geographical origin of the honey. Discrepancy between the origin as analyzed and the origin as labelled (e.g. "Made in", "Product of" as shown on the product package) or the product description was found in 7 of the samples.

For instance, a sample labelled as "Made in Switzerland" was assessed to have its honey originated in China. In another case, the word Korea in Chinese appeared in the product description but again the honey was assessed to originate from China.

Manufacturers are urged to provide comprehensive information to consumers in respect of the country of manufacture and the geographical origin of the honey as is currently the practice in EU countries.

Claims of antibacterial activity property made by manuka honey also came under scrutiny of the test.

The test measured the NPA (Non-Peroxide Activity), MGO (methylglyoxal) and TA (total activity) of the manuka samples and found variances of antibacterial activity levels in the samples.

According to medical professionals and nutritionists, the antibacterial and wound healing effects of honey are well documented in literature. But generally honey for ingestion is not sterilized to be used for wound care. Medical grade honey should be applied for that purpose. As far as manuka honey is concerned, their health benefits as claimed are yet to be studied and confirmed.

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