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It may be necessary to formalise apiculture to disincentivise adulteration in honey

The only way we will ensure honey is genuine is through traceability and technology and digitisation makes this task easier.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: December 10, 2020 8:59:50 am
Pure honey has many health benefits. (Source: pixabay)

There are two reasons why I know more about bees and honey than most people. First, the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister set up a Beekeeping Development Committee under my chairmanship. (The June 2019 report is in the public domain.) Second, we have bees at home and the honey we consume comes from these bees. Bees produce other products too — royal jelly, pollen, beeswax, bee venom and propolis. (A new queen bee also fetches a fair amount of money.) However, in popular perception, bees are typically identified with honey.

Contrary to general impression, there are different types of bees. Some are even solitary. The beehives one sees hanging here and there on trees, or the ones found in mountains and forests are from the rock bee, apis dorsata. Most beekeepers will have apis mellifera, with apis cerana in southern parts. Apis mellifera is more productive and relatively docile. However, apis dorsata is wild. When it stings, it stings hard and it hurts. In comparison, apis mellifera does not sting unless provoked and when it does sting, it is mild. Our bees are mellifera. Honey can be multi-flora, where bees collect honey from multiple types of flowers. Honey can also be uni-flora, where honey is specifically from one type of flower. In the latter case, greater control has to be exercised by a beekeeper and therefore, logically, uni-flora honey will be more expensive than multi-flora. Everyone should try out mustard or saffron (kesar) honey to savour the difference.

We aren’t professional beekeepers. Therefore, our homegrown honey is multi-flora. But, because of the trees around, it is often based on neem or eucalyptus (depending on the season), with that very distinctive fragrance and flavour. Because of perception that honey is good for health, many friends/acquaintances regularly have honey, bought from the market. When they taste our honey, they remark on how different it is. Our honey is pure and unadulterated. When honey is bought from the market, you never know. Natural and pure honey will crystallise, but most consumers don’t like that. To cater to consumer tastes, some mixing with sugar syrup is inevitable. Natural and pure honey will be mixed with some pollen, but most consumers don’t like that smell.

There is raw honey and there is processed honey. What kind of price ensures viability of apiculture? That’s not easy to answer, since it depends on the scale of operation, the type of bee and on whether the beekeeper also sells non-honey products. As a rough indication, Rs 110 per kg for raw honey should suffice. Viability of apiculture is also vital for cross-pollination done by bees — a fact we tend to forget. But this is raw honey. Processing will be done by the beekeeper and there will be some wastage. Therefore, something like Rs 180 per kg for processed honey. That’s not the end of the chain. Like the farm to fork story, there are margins in the chain for wholesalers, stockists, retailers. From Rs 180 per kg, the hive to high table honey price becomes around Rs 360 per kg.

As a consumer, when you buy multi-flora honey, you probably pay Rs 400 per kg or more. But the beekeeper’s price has crashed to Rs 75 per kg, making apiculture unviable. What’s wrong? It’s not as if we import large volumes of honey from elsewhere. Consumers are buying more honey. But beekeepers are selling less raw and semi-processed honey and getting a lower price. This leads to only one possible conclusion. What a consumer buys as honey is not natural honey. It happens to be adulterated. Down to Earth (Centre for Science and Environment) has just released a report (“It’s not honey”) that documents adulteration of honey, a phenomenon we too encountered when we did our report. The Food and Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has questioned validity of CSE’s tests. Leaving that aside, consider the following.

Some mixing of sugar syrup is understandable and permissible. Above that threshold, it constitutes adulteration. When we export honey, standards are applied. Shouldn’t domestic standards be the same or do we accept lower standards for domestic consumers? And do FSSAI’s present standards for honey capture every possible form of adulteration through sugar syrup? Sugar used for dilution and adulteration can be from multiple sources — corn, sugarcane, rice, beetroot. Do present tests cover all these and is there a fructose syrup that can cheat tests? (CSE suggests we originally imported fructose syrup from China, but that Chinese technology has now been implanted in some Indian states.)

Then, is enforcement (a state government function) adequate, or are we prepared to tolerate adulteration — a fact of life for other items too? How tough are our advertising and consumer protection norms? Are we content that unnatural honey should be labelled as natural honey? In our report, we had said, “Honey (and bee products) sold in India or exported shall be traceable to a registered beekeeper or a registered collector (in case of rock bee honey). Honey without a known source shall not be treated as honey.” The only way we will ensure honey is genuine is through traceability and technology and digitisation makes this task easier. This means we need to know the honey supply chain and formalise apiculture, a view also endorsed by CSE. FSSAI is only a regulator. That terminal objective requires much more than FSSAI action. Till then, the land is one of syrup and honey.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 10, 2020 under the title ‘Land of syrup and honey’. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Views are personal

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