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European 'honey laundering' fightback targets Chinese sugar syrup

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EU countries are pushing back against an influx of syrupy honey from China and other exporters that is flooding the bloc’s €2.3bn market and driving down prices.

The drive by 20 member states, led by Slovenia, to tighten regulation against what one official dubbed “honey laundering” follows a European Commission study that found a rise in fraud. According to findings published last month, nearly half of the honey broke EU regulations, including ingredients such as sugar syrup, coloring and water.

“It’s basically sugar water,” said an EU official.

Because imported products are sold for less than European produce, beekeepers across the continent said honey fraud hurts small businesses, misleads consumers and, by discouraging beekeepers, harms the environmental role of bees. poses a risk to

“There is unfair competition coming from outside the EU, mainly from China,” said Yvan Hennien, a beekeeper with 300 hives in Hallouin, northern France. “It’s not real honey and it’s slashing in price.”

Officials said 20 member states this week called for new rules on honey labeling and strengthened checks to make it easier to detect counterfeit samples. It follows an earlier proposal on honey labeling led by Slovenia in January.

Four out of five jars sold in supermarkets are mixed, often including honey from both within and outside the block. A proposal from Slovenia calls for EU honey labels to indicate each country of origin and their respective share in blends, rather than for blends containing a mixture of EU and non-EU honey.

The countries also want the commission to improve detection of adulterated honey and increase the number of laboratories approved to assess it.

“We want to end honey smuggling,” said an official who supported the proposal.

On Friday, the commission proposed labeling each country of origin in honey blends, but did not support suggestions to include a percentage of how much honey came from each country, citing cost constraints on operators.

However, an official from one member state involved in the talks warned that this would not be enough to tackle the problem, and asked for specific wording on the “traceability” of honey to be included.

Four out of five jars of honey sold in supermarkets are a blend, often including honey from both within and outside the EU © Ute Grabowsky/Photothek/Getty Images

Despite calls for austerity, the EU continues to rely on imports to meet the demands of its sugar-sweetened population. It produces 218,000 tonnes of honey, but also imports 175,000 tonnes per year, most of which comes from just eight destinations, including China, Ukraine, Turkey and several Latin American countries.

A commission study carried out from 2021 to 2022 found that 46 per cent of honey samples surveyed violated EU rules, a figure up from just 14 per cent in the period between 2015 and 2017. Of the 123 companies assessed, 70 exported honey. Suspected to be sugar syrup, which can be made more cheaply than the real thing.

Of those exporters, 21 came from China, more than any other country, followed by Ukraine.

Adulterated jars also came from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey, while every operator surveyed from Great Britain exported at least one jar suspected of failing to meet EU regulations. The researchers said the finding was probably the result of honey from other countries being repackaged in the UK, although the UK’s overall exports to the EU were comparatively low.

Henian said that although direct sales from his farm had done well, the prices he received from wholesalers had declined in recent years. He charges at least €3.50 per kilo of honey from wholesalers but imported honey can be bought for less than €1.

This has hurt the entire bee-based economy, said Henian, who also sells queen bees to those starting a beekeeping business.

“Everything moves together,” he said. “Honey sells at a good price, vendors sell equipment, beekeepers set up, we sell the queen bee. It’s a circular, beehive profession that we must maintain.”

Stanislav Jass, a Finland-based beekeeper and chairman of the Honey Working Party for European agricultural groups Kopa and Kogeka, said the drop in prices has forced them to sell more honey directly to consumers on a wholesale basis.

While he was “happy” that the Commission’s proposal would improve transparency for consumers, Jaš said there was a “lack of ambition” to tackle fraud and support European producers.

“The percentages are not there and they did not mention the issue of fraud or the lab test,” he said. “We are going to work with the Council and the European Parliament to improve the proposal.”

Jaš and Hennion stated that the beekeeping industry was important to the environment and agriculture because of the role of bees in pollination.

According to EU figures, pollinators including bees contribute €22 billion to the European agricultural industry every year and pollinate 80 percent of crops and wild plants in the continent. They face a decline due to pesticides, pollution and other factors, which the European Union has said it wants to reverse by 2030.

Hennion is a “pastoral” beekeeper, or “flower chaser”, he says. To make sure his bees have access to rapeseed, he regularly travels with them from Ardèche in southern France to Halluin, a town on the Belgian border.

said Finnish honey packer Apo Savo, who works with 150 Finnish beekeepers and packs the honey into containers, which are then sold in supermarkets.

“What is the future of professional beekeeping in Europe?” Savo said. “It will be more difficult to produce honey all the time. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”