Half the honey imported into the European Union market is fake. This is the conclusion of a collaborative investigation conducted by the European Commission with the help of OLAF – the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).
This is a concerning result – if half the honey imported is fake, the suspicion falls onto the domestic honey as well. Buyers won’t distinguish between European and imported honey and will avoid buying honey altogether.
‘From the hives’ – as it was dubbed – was an EU coordinated action led by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), with the national authorities of 18 countries that are part of the EU Food Fraud Network OLAF and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).
Honey naturally contains sugars and, according to EU legislation, must remain pure – meaning that it cannot have ingredients added to it. Adulteration occurs when ingredients such as water or inexpensive sugar syrups are artificially added to increase the volume of honey.
While the risk to human health is considered low, such practices defraud consumers and put honest producers in jeopardy as they face unfair competition from operators who can slash prices thanks to illicit, cheap ingredients. For example, the EU average unit value for imported honey was 2.32 €/kg in 2021, whereas sugar syrups made from rice were around 0.40 – 0.60 €/kg.
Most fake honey is from Turkey (93%) and China (74%), but, again, buyers will avoid the product altogether. Also, we have to consider that some of the so-called producers are only importers – a European label can hide the product’s true origin. Who’s going to lose from this? The European consumer, of course.
‘From the hives’ targeted imports of honey into the EU. Suspicious import or export operators were identified thanks to an initial phase of collection of honey samples at border points of entry in participating countries and a second phase of intelligence-gathering supported by OLAF. As a third phase, national authorities and OLAF carried out investigations on suspicious consignments at import, processing, blending, and packing places.
The key word was teamwork. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety initiated and coordinated the entire action. OLAF investigated to help identify suspicious operators, performed on-the-spot checks with national authorities, and acquired and analyzed computer and phone records. Colleagues at the JRC analyzed samples collected at borders in their laboratories to detect adulteration. National authorities were, as always, on the front line of checks and investigations on the ground. OLAF has investigated international food fraud before, and I am very glad that we could lend our experience. The EU is an importer of honey as the internal demand is higher than our domestic production. It is important that we remain vigilant against any abuse. The most frequent type of fraud with honey happens via adulteration, meaning by adding cheap ingredients instead of keeping the honey pure. But we also found instances of origin fraud, with labels claiming false origins of the product. This action served to raise attention, call for order, and deter any fraudulent practices.’Ville Itälä, Director-General of OLAF
During the EU coordinated action, 133 businesses (70 importers and 63 exporters) were found to be involved in consignments of honey suspected of being adulterated. A further 44 operators have been investigated, many thanks to OLAF. OLAF’s investigation detected various types of fraud, including adulteration.
The participating countries were: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Sweden, as well as Norway and Switzerland.