Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in a recently held webinar, has said that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has not taken adequate action on the issue of honey adulteration.
An investigation in December 2021 by CSE and Down To Earth magazine had unravelled the ‘food fraud’. It had revealed that 77 per cent of honey samples (17/22), which CSE got tested in Indian and German laboratories, had failed the tests of purity; they were found adulterated with sugar syrups. Only three out of 13 brands had passed all tests.
The brands that passed were Saffola, Markfed Sohna, and Nature’s Nectar (one sample). The brands that failed included Dabur, Patanjali, Apis, Zandu, Baidyanath, Hitkary, Dadev, Indigenous, Hi Honey and Societe Naturelle.
“We are deeply concerned by the way the FSSAI has addressed this serious issue. There is no strong and public action to send the right message to honey-selling companies and reassure consumers,” said Dr.Sunita Narain, director general, CSE.
The CSE investigation had also highlighted the fact that laboratory tests conducted as per the FSSAI’s standards cannot detect adulteration in honey samples. CSE has called for regulating syrup imports, public testing, better enforcement and traceability to check this nefarious business of honey adulteration. Says Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins unit, CSE: “Honey adulteration not only impacts our health, but also our livelihood and food productivity.”
What is the latest on the honey fraud case?
CSE had shared laboratory results of two additional samples with the FSSAI on December 17, 2020. These results had shown very clearly that deliberate adulteration of up to 50 per cent with sugar syrups was not detectable by the specific marker test for rice syrup (SMR). Says Khurana: “This has put paid to the FSSAI’s contention (as declared in a meeting on December 4 with the CSE team) that conducting the SMR test is important to detect adulteration with rice syrup. Our additional tests — along with the tests on the spiked samples conducted previously – show that modified syrups have been designed to bypass the Indian standards of 2020.”
“While some actions are being considered, there is no clear message from the FSSAI that there exist such syrups that can bypass Indian standards. In such a situation, the companies continue to claim that their honey passes all FSSAI parameters, and thus mislead the consumers,” says Narain.
CSE researchers point out that so far, the FSSAI has written to Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC), Department of Revenue to make mandatory the end use declaration by importers as per HS (harmonized system) codes. It has also commissioned a study and asked for data from companies.
Besides these actions, it has convened a meeting with experts from its scientific panel, which focused on revision of standards (developed over the last several years and considered better compared to other countries).
The CSE investigation has received unprecedented response from across the country and the world – ranging from consumers of honey, to agencies like the Central Consumer Protection Authority, National Human Rights Commission, etc. Most of these responses have called for necessary action by the FSSAI.
Following the expose by CSE, media reports quoting Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) have pointed to the likelihood of action on sugar syrup imports from China. “If syrup imports are regulated, it will solve one part of the problem as syrups are now being manufactured in India as well. Therefore, we need better enforcement and traceability of honey,” says Khurana.
CSE investigators cite media report to highlight aggressive advertisements released by honey-selling companies following the expose. As per the TAM (Television Audience Measurement) report, the advertising volumes for honey category bergrew nine times in print medium in December 2020 (compared to November 2020). On digital media, they were up by a factor of four.
Advertising volume for Patanjali Honey has grown 17 times on TV (Nov-Dec 2020) and there has been seven-fold increase in advertising for Dabur Honey in the same period, compared to the previous year. The focus of most of these advertisements has remained on claims by companies of meeting the FSSAI parameters. Says Khurana: “The companies are making such claims because there is no deterrent action. This is exactly why the FSSAI should have come forward, as it is now proved that its tests can fail to detect adulteration.”
“It is clear that the business of adulteration has constantly evolved to beat laboratory tests. While India needs to regulate syrup imports, it also needs better public testing, enforcement and traceability in the honey sector. We need food to work for our nutrition; for nature and for livelihoods of communities. This remains our agenda,” says Dr.Sunita Narain.
(By Pratyusha Mukherjee)