Feeling the sting: the impact of honey fraud on beekeepers

"You know, as beekeepers, we produce a very high quality product that is 100% pure and to have other people come in and pass off some other type of sweetener for honey is very infuriating."

Jake Berg, Saskatchewan beekeeper and Chair of the Canadian Honey Council

"We're trying to better understand it in the Canadian landscape and work to prevent, detect and deter fraud from happening."

Carmen Leung, Policy and Program Leader, Consumer Protection and Market Fairness Division, CFIA

There's a sticky situation out there. In this podcast, we discuss honey adulteration with Jake Berg, a Saskatchewanian beekeeper, and Carmen Leung, a policy and program leader at the CFIA.

This episode is a collaboration on adulterated honey with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast, The First Sixteen. Be sure to catch their episode as well: Episode 021 – Shedding light on food fraud.

Feeling the sting: the impact of honey fraud on beekeepers – Audio Transcript

Carmen Leung (guest): I guess we're very mindful about using the word fraud, but misrepresented. And honey is a big problem. It's always been a problem.

Jake Berg (guest): I mean, it's changed and evolved over the years. It's definitely went from just adding some sugar into the honey to a very scientific or lab-based adulteration stuff type thing now.

Carmen: And through, I think some of the work that we do in CFIA, we really work to prevent, detect and deter fraud from happening.

Jake: You know, to beekeepers it's… we produce a very high quality product that is 100% pure and to have other people come in and pass off some other type of sweetener for honey is very infuriating.

Michelle Strong (co-host): I'm Michelle Strong.

Greg Rogers (co-host): And I'm Greg Rogers. And you're listening to Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's official podcast.

Michelle: This episode was created in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's award-wining podcast, the First Sixteen. They published a related-segment on honey fraud. And we really recommend you listen to it.

Greg: They talk about the latest tech for food fraud. You can find the link to their podcast in our episode description.

Michelle: So anyways. Back to today. We're going to be talking about a really sticky situation. Honey fraud.

Greg: The website Insider published an article in 2020, where they place honey in the top three faked foods in the world.

Michelle: So when we say fake honey, what does that even mean?

Carmen: So under Canadian law, honey is a standardized product made by bees from the nectar of flowers or plant secretions.

Michelle: That's Carmen Leung. She works in consumer protection policy here at the CFIA.

Carmen: So what this means is that it cannot contain any added sugars, such as corn syrup, rice sugars or sugar cane.

Michelle: We'll be speaking more with Carmen later in this episode.

Greg: Honey fraud, also known informally as honey laundering, isn't the only challenge beekeepers faced this year. The 2022 winter was disastrous for bee loss. Beekeepers across Canada lost on average between 30 and 90% of their colonies.

Michelle: We wanted to hear a beekeeper's perspective. So we reached out to Jake, who's worked with bees for over 25 years.

Jake: So I'm Jake Berg, chair of the Canadian Honey Council.

Michelle: Thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about beekeeping? What's it like?

Jake: Honestly, it was my first summer job as a kid and I kind of just fell in love with it. So I started beekeeping in high school in 1997. And then after that, I ended up buying my own bee farm with a partner in 2005. And we started out in 2005 with 252 colonies. And last year in 2021, we were running about 2100 production colonies and then about 1500 replacement colonies.

Michelle: So cool.

Greg: Is it true that honey never goes bad?

Jake: Yes. As long as…with a few caveats to that, honey, that it's kept dry, will never go bad. So 17.8% moisture is considered dry for honey. So as long as it's below that 17.8% moisture level, it should keep indefinitely.

Greg: I love honey. I really do.

Michelle: Who doesn't, right?

Greg: Yeah. It's the different flowers and stuff, right? I bought some honey one time. It was super dark and, you know, depends on the flowers kind of thing. Right. So I guess you're in the prairies. Is honey different there than it would be here in the East Coast?

Jake: Oh, absolutely. Every different floral source will give you a different flavor, different texture of honey. So, yeah, honey from the prairies is usually different than honey from the Maritimes or from the East Coast or also from different in the West Coast.

Michelle: What's your favorite type of honey? I ask because my mother likes to put honey in her coffee and I make fun of her for that. But it has to be a particular type of honey. So instead of sugar, right?

Jake: Yeah. I think my own personal favorite honey would probably be honey from Borage. So Borage is a flowering oilseed grown here on the prairies. What I really know about Borage is the type of honey it produces. It's a very mild tasting, granulates to a very smooth consistency on its own. It ends up being a very nice, raw packed honey.

Greg: Are there kinds of flowers that make poor honey?

Jake: It all depends on the end consumer. I mean, some honeys do have a very dark color and very, you know, very pungent taste. But then that's what some consumers are looking for.

Greg: In beekeeping circles, when did fake honey start being talked about?

Jake: In the beekeeping community, fake honey or adulterated honey has been an issue as long as I've been in the beekeeping community. I mean, it's changed and evolved over the years. I mean, it definitely went from just adding some sugar into the honey to increase the yield or increase the bulk to a very scientific or lab based adulteration stuff type thing now.

Greg: It's that sophisticated that it's not just a question of adding some syrup, like there are actually people in a lab that are trying to circumvent testing methods and that kind of …?

Jake: Yeah. I mean, it's that simple, but it isn't that simple. I mean, it's in the in the end, yes. It is a matter of just adding syrup to honey or adding something to honey. But it's not just Joe Blow in his backyard deciding he's going to add sugar to honey. It's a lab-based formula or lab-based process that's initially started and then scaled up.

Michelle: To help people understand the scope of this issue, what would you say are the impacts of honey adulteration?

Jake: Well, I mean, ultimately, the impacts of adulteration is food fraud to start with. I mean, it's just not really the product that the consumer is wanting to buy.

Michelle: Right.

Jake: But the impacts are lower honey prices for beekeepers, making beekeeping less financially feasible. And there would be more beekeepers switching to different revenue streams such as pollinating. And that would then take the already limited amount of honey that's in the Canadian marketplace and lower that and therefore make more space for fraudulent honey to come into the marketplace.

Greg: I imagine it's a question of pride too as a beekeeper.

Jake: It is. It really is. We produce a very high quality product that is 100% pure and to have other people come in and pass off some other type of sweetener for honey is very infuriating.

Michelle: I can only imagine. Why do you think honey is a vulnerable target? Why is this a fraud problem in honey in particular, in your opinion?

Jake: I would say it's strictly economics. Honey is a higher price sweetener, and there is money to be made in fraudulently passing off other sweeteners as honey.

Michelle: So what do you think could be done to further reduce the importing of adulterated honey?

Jake: Well, I mean, CFIA has been doing a really excellent job of catching adulterated honey coming into Canada in the last few years. I think the biggest thing that could be done would be to have CFIA continue the amount of testing that they have been doing and just continuing to monitor both on store shelves with packed honey. But I think the bigger fraud issue or the bigger fraudulent honey amount would definitely be in the bulk container honey market. So bulk container loads coming into Canada or leaving Canada is probably where most of the fraudulent honey ends up.

Greg: So, Jake, what about the consumer? Are there any tips they can use to identify real versus fake honey, like any indicators we can use at home or even better at the grocery store?

Jake: Really, the only or the best solution that I can offer to the consumer would be buy local honey, you know. Find your local beekeeper and buy directly from the beekeeper. Or if nothing else, if you're buying in the grocery store, buy 100% Canadian honey.

Michelle: We've heard that obviously this has been an extremely unlucky year for beekeeping. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jake: So yeah. So the winter, this past winter was really hard on bees. The winter survivability was down or we've had a higher winter loss because of… at this point it looks like varroa mites. So varroa mites have been around in Canada for 20 plus years now. And this past year, the summer of 2021 was a really great year for growing bees. So therefore it became a really great year for growing mites as well. And the mite count just got away on a lot of producers. So we're hearing anywhere from the kind of low end 30% colony loss to the high end of 90% plus.

Michelle: Have you seen this sort of loss in your beekeeping experience over previous years or is this completely new?

Jake: No, it's not completely new. It happens occasionally. It hasn't happened for a long time. The last time that I remember extremely high winter losses like this would have been about possibly 2007 or 2008, somewhere in that range.

Michelle: We spoke to Jake about the winter bee loss for awhile. It's super interesting, but also heart-wrenching, which is why we decided to dedicate an entire episode to it.

Greg: So, if you're interested in hearing more from Jake on the unusual bee loss this winter, keep your ears open for our upcoming episode.

Michelle: When it comes to honey though, we had a few more questions for Jake.

Greg: Has the technology changed much over the years you've seen?

Jake: Unfortunately, no. Beekeeping still requires a lot of physical labour. We've mechanized as much as we possibly can, but it still requires physical labour of somebody to go out there and physically check every single hive, take the hive apart by hand, put the hive back together by hand, and then moving honey supers around. So it's a lot of backbreaking labour.

Michelle: Do you have any tips for anybody who's looking to get into the beekeeping industry? You started in high school. I mean, anybody can start at any time?

Jake: Yeah, anybody can start at any time into beekeeping. I think the best tip that I've ever heard, and it's how I started, was go and find a beekeeper that you can either work with or work for and just kind of work for them for a while. And that's typically the most successful beekeepers. That's how they've started in beekeeping is working for another beekeeper and learning the ropes that way. Basically, with a mentor.

Greg: I thought you were going to say go and find a bee and then follow it back to where it's going and find the hive and then bring that home and put it in a box.

Michelle: Don't do that.

Jake: Not so much.

Greg: I'm obsessed with honey. There's just so much to learn. And I can just imagine the amount of back breaking work you guys put into producing honey and to have somebody just add some sugar to it and try and pass it off. I mean, it would be very frustrating, but we learned a lot. Really appreciate it.

Jake: Well, thanks for having me. I'm always happy to talk about bees and honey and the beekeeping industry. On behalf of the Canadian Honey Council, thanks for doing this podcast.

Michelle: After speaking with Jake, we wanted to learn how the CFIA handles honey fraud, and how the Agency lessens the sting for beekeepers.

Greg: So we spoke with Carmen, who's voice you heard earlier this episode.

Carmen: Hi Michelle. Hi Greg. My name is Carmen Leung, and I'm a Policy and programs leader under the Food Fraud Initiative.

Greg: When did honey fraud land on the CFIA's radar?

Carmen: Well, actually, a long time ago, since the Agency existed back in 1997. Prior to the Safe Food for Canadian Regulations, CFIA actually had a honey regulation and a honey program that did regular monitoring for the presence of foreign sugar. So in the last few years, CFIA has become aware of the risk of adulteration of honey in Canada. And we discovered this within our own findings in the Agency, but also information that was shared with us through industry. And actually with one of your other guests on the podcast from the Canadian Honey Council. So in response to this risk, we started conducting enhanced surveillance testing since 2018.

Michelle: So it seems to be more of an issue today. Is that…?

Carmen: I think this all fits under the food policy for Canada. This is where part of our program funding comes from. And part of it is to identify high risk commodities in Canada that are potentially… I guess we're very mindful about using the word fraud, but misrepresented. And honey is… honey is a big problem. It's always been a problem. And now that we have extra funding for it, we're really targeting and trying to understand it better in the Canadian landscape. And through, I think some of the work that we do, we really work to prevent, detect and deter fraud from happening. And part of the surveillance and the sampling and updating our scientific tools and methods and sharing our results is part of that.

Greg: I wonder if we could touch on how the industry is very willing to participate in this because they, beekeepers, spend so much time and effort making their product. It's my understanding they're really one of the reasons why honey is one of the products that we are testing so thoroughly. Is that true?

Carmen: I think that the Canadian Honey Council is very active. Our relationship with them is very strong. But I think having that kind of collaboration with associations where they get feedback from their members is very helpful for us to understand what's happening on the ground as well.

Michelle: Before we get into adulteration, can we go backwards a little bit and explore that, you know, honey is in so many products and we're wondering, is honey fraud a problem for products that list honey as an ingredient as well, like maybe granola bars or breakfast cereal, that sort of thing?

Carmen: That's a great question. CFIA actually tests honey at all levels of trade. While we don't test foods that contain honey as ingredients, we do take samples and test bulk honey that will be used for further processing, including for use as ingredients in other foods. Some of the unsatisfactory samples that CFIA took action on were actually bulk shipment of honey intended for further processing.

Greg: So when honey does turn out to be adulterated, how much of it is real? Basically, what proportion of adulterated honey is made of the real deal versus the additives that people put in?

Carmen: So this can actually vary a great deal. The range be very low and sometimes even more than 50%. So when we do honey testing, we're looking for an authentic profile of honey. And what we do is we do 2 different types of tests that detect different added sugars. One of the test methods is called nuclear magnetic resonance analysis. And this actually detects the addition of foreign sugars by comparing the sample to the profile of authentic honey. The second test is called the stable isotope ratio analysis. It actually detects the addition of foreign sugars by percentage, but it only detects C4 sugars such as sugar cane and corn syrups. And this is why we do 2 different types of testing.

Greg: If, like me, you're fascinated by the tech and science around food fraud testing, be sure to check-out the episode from our collab-partners, the First Sixteen. They really go in-depth on this topic.

Greg: Can you give us the latest news or findings when it comes to honey fraud in Canada? What's the situation here?

Michelle: What's the situation?

Carmen: Sure. What's the buzz? Is that what you wanted to say Michelle?

Michelle: But you said it in my book.

Carmen: What's the latest buzz? Well, we actually just published the 2022-2021 Food Fraud Annual Report, which came out in May 2022. And it's part of a multi-commodity surveillance results report. And here we describe 2 different types of testing that we did on honey.

Michelle: So, Carmen explained to us that, in the first type of testing, they picked samples at random.

Carmen: And here we found 95% of the retail survey samples being satisfactory.

Greg: The second type of sampling is specifically targeted to groups who were found to have marketed falsified honey in the past. From these samples, about 74% were found to be satisfactory.

Michelle: In total, 182 samples were analysed.

Greg: 21 samples were found to have some level of added sugar.

Michelle: 16 of the adulterated samples were taken from imported honey.

Greg: And only 5 were sampled from domestic honey.

Michelle: So the sampling you're talking about, is it suggesting that the problem is primarily with imported honey? Like, do we know from where?

Carmen: So the non-compliant honey samples were from many different countries. In our 2020 to 2021 sampling, we actually found non-compliant honey imported from Egypt, Germany, Greece, Taiwan, India, a blend of Indian-Canadian honey, a blend of Australian and Brazilian honey and a Bulgarian and Greek blend of honey.

Michelle: So a little bit all over.

Carmen: Yeah, just all over.

Greg: How do they manage to get in here? Despite the regulations that we have in place.

Carmen: So, many foods are sampled or inspected by CFIA at the import level after they have arrived in Canada. CFIA uses incoming shipment data supplied by the Canada Border Services Agency to screen and identify shipments going to higher risk importers. While it is the responsibility of importers to have in place a preventative control plan that mitigates risk and ensures regulatory compliance, CFIA continues to inspect some license holders that do not comply with regulatory requirements. And when violations are found, we take action to address these non-compliances.

Michelle: What are those actions? Like what happens when we find a non-compliant product?

Carmen: There's a few options, actually. So when a regulated party is not complying with requirements, the CFIA will choose from a number of control measures, enforcement actions. So these include taking into consideration the harm caused by the non-compliance, the compliance history of the regulated party and whether there was an intent to violate federal requirements. These enforcement options include product detention, disposal, an order to remove from Canada and even prosecution.

Michelle: If you want to learn more on this, we publish a bunch of information on our website. We even have a prosecution bulletin. We'll link to these pages in the description.

Carmen: Okay. Just to follow up with the last question there, I was just going to say that in our 2022-2021 surveillance activities, CFIA prevented about 18,000 kilograms of honey from being sold in the Canadian marketplace. And so this included imported honey that was voluntarily destroyed, in some cases in barrels, and some honey being detained with the majority of the honey being removed completely from Canada.

Michelle: Sounds like a sticky situation. I had to! I'm sorry.

Greg: I'm sure it's probably not the only.... We're not done yet! So in terms of prosecution, are there fines? Does anybody ever go to jail for this kind of thing?

Carmen: Not that I'm aware of right now for honey. But under the food fraud space there definitely are fines. And you can find this information on our prosecution bulletin website.

Greg: I just picture like… it's my turn, to use a pun: like a sting operation. Like you're posing as a bulk honey buyer and then meeting in a shady spot and saying "hey, is this stuff real or not?". That kind of thing. But maybe that's just my imagination. What's the plan moving forward for the CFIA and our partners when it comes to honey fraud?

Carmen: We will continue to monitor compliance of honey in Canada and take necessary action when we find misrepresented product. So CFIA will continue to work with industry to remind them of their responsibility to comply with food regulations as well as with foreign competent authorities in countries exporting honey to Canada. Overall, this will continue to help protect consumers from misrepresentation and support a fair marketplace for all stakeholders.

Michelle: And do you have a favourite type of honey?

Carmen: I think I like Manuka honey.

Greg: Is that a brand or is it the kind of flower?

Carmen: I wish I knew? I don't know. But I know it's very expensive and it comes from New Zealand.

Michelle: Yum. Do you have a favorite commodity as a scientist or you just want to test everything?

Carmen: I just like food. That's why it's so interesting.

Michelle: Good answer.

Carmen: If I need to choose food, plants or animals. I choose food.

Greg: That would be me. I'd be like, I need to test this onion, this lobster, and yeah…

Michelle: One for me, one for the lab!

Carmen: It does make you a lot more mindful when you go to the grocery store for sure.

Greg: I can imagine.

Carmen: About what you choose and buy.

Greg: I had to Google it, just because I wanted to know what Manuka honey was. And it's, you know, tea tree oil. It's the same... That's where the bees pollinate, in Australia and New Zealand, the tea trees. It's very cool.

Michelle: Thanks so much for being here with us today, Carmen.

Carmen: Thank you for having me.

Greg: This episode is a collaboration with Kirk and Sara, co-hosts of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada podcast, The First Sixteen. If you haven't subscribed to them yet, I strongly recommend it.

Michelle: They also released an episode on adulterated honey, focusing on the testing technology. You can find the links to their episode in our description.

Greg: And a reminder to also check-out the CFIA resources and reports we linked - really fascinating stuff there. You're listening to Inspect and Protect, the CFIA's official podcast. See you next time!

[End of recording]

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