Checks on honey to increase
Closer checks on manuka honey before it leaves New Zealand appear inevitable as officials try to sort out if some brands found with sugar and other contaminants in Hong Kong were the result of an old test.
The Hong Kong Consumer Council tested 55 samples, including manuka honey from New Zealand, and about a quarter were reported to have contained sugar. Others contained plain syrup, small amounts of antibiotic residues or traces of an anti-parasite drug.
New Zealand Bee Products Standards Council chairman Dr Jim Edwards said the council had yet to see the full report on the Hong Kong investigation and wanted to confirm if the results were from an old test giving falsely high sugar readings or a more accurate new test introduced two months ago.
He said the Hong Kong report was not a food safety problem, but was a food quality issue and needed to be sorted quickly to maintain manuka honey's high reputation.
"In some countries some time ago there has been problems with honey diluted with sugar or corn syrup. We have no evidence of deliberate alteration [here]."
He said the manuka industry had been aware of "false positive" readings from an old international test.
"Until we see the full result we don't know which test they used. Have they been using the old test or the revised test which has been recently adopted internationally? It seems from the timing of the report they may have still been using the old test, but until we get the full report we can't make a complete judgment."
The bee council commissioned GNS scientist Karyne Rogers to investigate a 30 per cent false positive rate in the old testing for sugar. A new test introduced two months ago has dropped this to 6 per cent.
The bee council is relying on the Ministry for Primary Industries to verify the Hong Kong results.
Not completely clear is what is triggering the false readings, but it appears related to a complicated interaction between measuring sugar and protein levels in manuka honey.
Parts of China have taken on the new internationally accepted test, but the bee council does not know if this has been widely adopted including in Hong Kong.
Another possibility for sugar contamination is that sugar is fed to bees to provide hives with more feed during the winter and in kiwifruit orchards because of low nectar levels and bees might have stored or mixed sugar in honey.
Edwards said he was unable to comment on pesticide traces found in manuka honey until the testing methods were seen.
He said more domestic testing was likely to be introduced whether the Hong Kong results were confirmed or not.
"I would expect to see there will be more testing before product goes offshore. There is no point sending product if it's not accepted."
Airborne Honey sales and marketing manager John Smart said the increasing focus on food quality and food safety in Asia should encourage the industry to be meticulous.
This had been part of Airborne's culture for decades.
Honey was tested when it arrived at the Christchurch factory from the beekeeper and when it left as a retail pack, as well as being internationally tested.