Four charges laid over toxic honey

BY SUSAN PEPPERELL
Last updated 01:27 15/02/2009

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A beekeeper whose toxic honey is alleged to have caused convulsions and violent seizures in several people has been charged with selling food unfit for human consumption.

Whangamata man Kevin Prout faces four charges under the Food Act and will appear in Waihi District Court on March 3.

People began getting sick from the honey last Easter; by the time the Food Safety Authority (FSA) and health authorities had traced the source several days later, 22 people had been affected.

Some, like former Opoutere School principal Vaughan van Rensburg, suffered violent seizures and spent several days in hospital.

Van Rensburg now says it's a miracle no one died. He was transferred to Waikato Hospital from Thames after collapsing and convulsing at a playground. Earlier in the day he had eaten four pieces of toast smothered in a thick layer of honey.

He had further seizures and says he "lost of couple of days in there. It's all pretty foggy".

"I'm 120kg and if it could knock me around that badly, it could have killed a small child. It took three weeks to get over it and to start thinking clearly again. It was pretty horrific."

His mother-in-law also ate some of the honey and was admitted to Thames Hospital.

A 43-year-old Palmerston North man was banned from driving for a year after he suffered a series of seizures related to consuming toxic honey, while a Wellington mother, her son and an English tourist were all treated in hospital.

FSA tests found the honey, produced by Prout's Projen Apiary in Whangamata and marketed as "A Taste of Whangamata Pure Honey", contained high levels of the toxic substances tutin and its derivative hyenanchin.

The toxins end up in the honey after bees feed on tutu bushes.

Commercial beekeepers are required by law to manage their hives to ensure affected honey is used only to feed bees (which are unaffected by the toxin) and never reaches humans, but Prout was a hobby apiarist who had been selling honey for only about five months before the scare.

The last previous honey poisoning case was in 1991.

Rebecca Easterbrook of the FSA said the authority generally dealt with two or three such cases each year and prosecutions were not unusual.

One of the authority's most successful prosecutions came last August when a Wanaka bakery was convicted after a customer ate a pie and then needed emergency surgery to remove a 44mm metal shard from his stomach.

The bakery was ordered to pay $11,217, including almost $6000 reparation to its customer.

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Each of the charges Prout faces carry a maximum penalty of $3000.

- Sunday Star Times

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