EU countries are pushing back against an influx of syrup-laced honey from China and other exporters that is flooding the bloc’s €2.3bn market and driving down prices.
The drive by 20 member states, led by Slovenia, to tighten regulation against what one official dubbed “honey laundering” follows a European Commission study that found a surge in fraud. Almost half of the honeys surveyed broke EU rules, with ingredients such as sugar syrups, colourings and water, according to findings published last month.
“It’s basically sugar water,” said one EU official.
Because imported products are sold at a lower price than the European product, beekeepers across the continent said honey fraud risked hurting small businesses, misleading consumers and, by discouraging would-be apiarists, posing a risk to bees’ environmental role.
“There’s unfair competition coming from outside the EU, principally China,” said Yvan Hennion, an apiarist with 300 hives in Halluin, northern France. “It’s not real honey and it’s making the price plummet.”
The 20 member states called this week for new rules on honey labelling and a strengthening of checks to make detecting fraudulent samples easier, officials said. It follows an earlier proposal on honey labelling led by Slovenia in January.
Four in five jars sold in supermarkets are blends, often including honey from both within and outside the bloc. A proposal by Slovenia has called for EU honey labels to indicate each country of origin and their respective share in blends, rather than the current approach of simply stating that blends contain a mix of EU and non-EU honey.
The countries also want the commission to improve its detection of honey that has been adulterated and increase the number of labs approved to assess it.
“We want traceability and an end to trafficked honey,” said an official backing the proposal.
On Friday, the commission proposed labelling each country of origin in blends of honey but did not support suggestions to include percentages of how much honey came from each country, citing cost constraints on operators.
However, an official from a member state who was involved in the negotiations warned this would not be enough to tackle the problem, and called for specific wording on “traceability” of honey to be included.
Despite the calls for a clampdown, the EU relies on imports to meet the demands of its sweet-toothed population. It produces 218,000 tonnes of honey but also imports 175,000 tonnes per year, with the vast majority coming from just eight destinations, including China, Ukraine, Turkey and several Latin American countries.
The commission study, conducted from 2021 to 2022, found that 46 per cent of honey samples surveyed broke EU rules, a figure that had risen from just 14 per cent in the period between 2015 and 2017. Some 70 of 123 companies assessed had exported honey suspected of containing sugar syrups, which can be made more cheaply than the genuine article.
Of those exporters, 21 came from China, more than any other country, followed by Ukraine.
Adulterated jars also came from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey, while every operator surveyed from Great Britain had exported at least one jar suspected of failing to meet EU rules. Researchers said the finding was probably the result of honey from other countries being repackaged in the UK, although the UK’s overall exports to the EU were comparatively low.
Hennion said that while direct sales from his farm had held up well, the prices he received from wholesalers had dropped in recent years. He charges wholesalers at least €3.50 per kilo of honey but imported honey can be bought for less than €1.
This hurt the entire bee-based economy, said Hennion, who also sells queen bees to those starting apiary businesses.
“Everything goes together,” he said. “The honey is sold at a good price, the seller sells equipment, beekeepers set up, we sell queen bees. It’s a circular, bee profession that we must maintain.”
Stanislav Jaš, a Finland-based beekeeper and chair of the honey working party for European farming groups Copa and Cogeca, said he was forced to sell more honey directly to consumers than on a wholesale basis because of the fall in prices.
While he was “happy” that the commission’s proposal will improve transparency for consumers, Jaš said it “lacked ambition” to tackle fraud and support European producers.
“The percentages aren’t there and they haven’t mentioned the fraud issue or laboratory testing,” he added. “We are going to work with the Council and the European Parliament to improve the proposal.”
The beekeeping industry was vital to the environment and agriculture because of bees’ role in pollination, Jaš and Hennion said.
Pollinators including honey bees contribute €22bn each year to the European agriculture industry and pollinate 80 per cent of crops and wild plants in the continent, according to EU figures. They face a decline caused by pesticides, pollution and other factors, which the EU has said it wants to reverse by 2030.
Hennion is a “pastoral” beekeeper, or a “flower chaser”, he says. To ensure his bees have access to rapeseed, he regularly travels with them from the Ardèche in southern France to Halluin, a town on the Belgian border.
This way of life, and that of other beekeepers in Europe, was at risk if prices remained low, said Aapo Savo, a Finnish honey packer who works with 150 Finnish beekeepers to pack honey into containers that are then sold on to supermarkets.
“What is the future of professional beekeeping in Europe?” Savo said. “All the time it will be more difficult to produce honey. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”