Professional Honey Sommelier and co-founder of sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees, Sarah Wyndham Lewis questions why food professionals and shoppers committed to food authenticity are still buying processed, blended honey. The ironically-named ‘funny honey’ routinely sold by all supermarkets and catering suppliers stems from a corrupted global trade that destroys beekeepers’ livings and increasingly threatens the very roots of agriculture.
The perfect archetype of slow food, real honey is a product of the soil, local flora and artisanal skill, With bees flying just 2.5 miles from their hives, pollinating as they feed, single-source honeys (like fine wines) are snapshots of their terroir, equally subject to exciting flavour variations from crop to crop. They are unique, micro localised foodstuffs, celebrated in in the Ark of Taste.
Where commercial honeys offer only standardised, pervasive sweetness, single-source varietals offer authenticity, finesse and differentiation. Comparable to the difference between glorious, single-estate coffee beans and a jar of freeze-dried instant coffee granules.
Honey has become a global commodity, often named alongside wine and olive oil as world’s top three most fraudulently produced foodstuffs. Let’s be clear, also, that we are talking here about big brand ‘reputable’ household names in the honey business being party to this trade, disguising corruption behind a flood of marketing ‘greenwash’. With governments worldwide (including the UK) unable or unwilling to tackle the issue, a recent pan-European report outlines the disastrous economic impact on beekeepers and hence, agricultural output.
As China, India and other high- volume producers flood world markets with low-quality but highly sophisticated fraudulent ‘honey’, this dirty trade costs authentic producers dearly. The report, a 2020 submission to the EU Parliament by influential European farming unions’ group Copa-Cogeca, flags up the true cost of cheap ‘honey’ imports as being the imminent loss of some 10 million hives across Europe. Worldwide, honeybees underpin domestic food security. From fruit and vegetables to meat and dairy, so much that we depend on involves bee pollination somewhere in the chain.
Beekeepers need to sell their honey at fair prices to stay in business. When drastically undercut by ‘ersatz’ imports, their business becomes unsustainable and their contribution to the local environment lost. Blended and adulterated honey imports sell for as little as £1.08/kg. Set this against the average cost of production across the EU/UK of £3.40/kg. and we need to ask ourselves what is actually in those honeys labelled ‘A blend of …………’.
‘Blending’ is an inherently shady term. Real honey is made in beehives by bees. Commercial honey is constructed in factories by food scientists and mass-produced behind tightly closed doors. Anonymously sourced, globally traded honeys are blended to standardised specifications of colour, viscosity and price, yet most fail even to meet the internationally agreed baseline definition of honey enshrined in the UN’s ‘Codex Alimentarius’.
Industrial honey processing includes super-heating and pressurised micro-filtration, destroying aromas, flavours and nutritional value. The pollen is also stripped out to delay natural crystallisation …and hide the true countries of origin. Even products declared as ‘A blend of EU honeys’ may well contain honeys transhipped from the other side of the world and illegally re-labelled. To meet buyer-dictated price points, processed honey is padded out to order with tailor-made syrups designed to beat even high-tech laboratory analysis.
Compare artisan honey production, where the combs are simply spun out and the liquid honey then coarsely filtered to remove excess beeswax before being stored or jarred. The pollen (protein) content is intact, as are all the micro-nutrients and flavours. Crucially too, the honey should not be taken above the natural hive temperature, this being the best definition of ‘raw honey’ and the best guarantee of flavour and nutritional quality.
Consumers and food professionals do have the power to buy sustainably, by sourcing real honey direct from beekeepers. Yet from top to bottom of both the hospitality industry and food retailing, most people still routinely grab that squeezy bottle of blended honey…the ‘funny honey’…. seeing it as just a low-priced basic commodity. Sales of it are, in fact, going through the roof as people mistakenly attribute the nutritional, and even medicinal, powers of real honey to its ultra-cheap namesake.
Let’s connect the dots…. Most chefs and an ever-growing number of consumers say they care deeply about authentic, sustainable ingredients and want to support producers of glorious meat, traditional cheeses, seasonal fruit and heritage vegetables. Yet all of these are available thanks wholly or in part to bees’ pollination services.
Without the beekeeping businesses that tend honeybees, we’re staring at a future where those food products can no longer be taken for granted. Already only 14% of the honey sold in the UK is actually made here, as professional beekeepers increasingly lose heart. Sourcing real honey from real beekeepers is an investment in transparency, quality and flavour – and a powerful way to guarantee our food choices in years to come.
Honey Fraud: Further resources:
Hive losses and impact on agriculture; 2020 Submission to EU Parliament by alliance of European farmer’s unions: Copa-Cogeca
Overview: Apimondia Statement on Global Honey Fraud: Jan 2020 https://www.apimondia.com/docs/apimondia_statement_on_honey_fraud.pdf
UN/World Health organisation: Legal definition of Honey in ‘Codex Alimentarius’ https://tinyurl.com/y3w8uytu
Global honey fraud & transhipping: 2018
Netflix : ‘Rotten’: Season 1, Episode 1 : ‘Guns, Lawyers and Honey’
Text and Images (C) Sarah Wyndham Lewis @sarahwyndham.lewis
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