Warning on pollen test to tackle phoney honey

ROB STOCK
Last updated 06:09 20/04/2014
Watson & Son Manuka Honey

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The Ministry of Primary Industries has been warned by a top British food scientist that it is in danger of taking a wrong step in the battle against fake manuka honey producers.

Dr Adrian Charlton from Britain's Food and Environment Research Agency food laboratory in York, where over 500 scientists work to protect the public from adulterated and mislabelled food, warned MPI not to tell the world's food watchdogs to test the authenticity of manuka honey by microscopic pollen analysis.

Charlton, speaking at an Auckland seminar attended by manuka honey producers, was commenting on a proposal by MPI that a definition of what manuka honey is be based on "pollen count", the measurement of the concentration of pollen trapped in honey.

A definition of manuka honey is being sought as part of a strategy to tackle fakery in the manuka honey business, which is blighting the industry's reputation and hindering its ability to become a half-billion-dollar-a-year export industry for New Zealand.

But Charlton said: "Pollen analysis is subjective and, in this case, is not fit for purpose."

It was less accurate than other forms of testing as human error crept in, and honey could have pollen added by unscrupulous producers in order to turn their ordinary pot of honey into fake manuka which could be sold for a much higher price.

Another issue with pollen testing was that kanuka and manuka pollen is extremely hard to tell apart, he said.

Producers also note that a pollen test would not differentiate Australian jellybush honey from manuka, opening the door to the Aussies to cash in on the manuka name.

Charlton said that MPI should focus on defining what manuka honey is and let the world's scientists and testing laboratories work out the best methods for testing.

There is no official definition for manuka honey, and that is seen as playing a part in the proliferation of adulterated honey.

It's hoped a formal definition would then be adopted by the world's food-testing agencies, leading to a crackdown on adulteration.

On that front, manuka honey producers, including listed Comvita, favour a relatively simple definition - that manuka honey is wholly or mainly derived from the nectar of manuka flowers.

Producers say chemical profiling looks the form of testing most likely to provide food testers with a means of accurately distinguishing real manuka honey from fake by identifying unique chemical markers found only in manuka honey.

The blemishes on manuka honey's reputation continue to mount.

Britain's Which? magazine, which is leading a campaign to crack down on food fraud and adulteration, last week listed manuka honey as one of the 10 foods most commonly adulterated or mislabelled.

The others were fruit juice laced with vegetable oil and bromine, cheap fish being passed off as more expensive types, chicken and scallops pumped up with water and proteins, faux basmati rice, phoney ham made of chicken and flavouring, fake cheese, non-virgin "virgin" olive oil, and counterfeit booze.

MPI has said it planned to start investigating manuka honey fraud.

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Minutes from a meeting last month of the Manuka Honey Labelling Guidelines Work Group and Science Work Group, which includes many manuka honey producers, recorded MPI spokesman Scott Gallacher as welcoming information on non-compliance with New Zealand law and that he would ensure MPI investigates.

UMF Association director John Rawcliffe said he welcomed the assurance from Gallacher because "we have put a number of issues in front of MPI over a number of years and they have not been taken up. To have the Government say that for the first time ever is great".

- Sunday Star Times

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