A total of 127 samples fell outside the purity criteria of Elflein and Raezke, which is based on analysis of 451 authentic honey samples, as they contained added sugar.
The simplest way to adulterate honey involves adding sugar (syrups) while indirect adulteration by feeding of sugar (syrups) during the main nectar flow period is another method.
JRC testing was done by elemental analysis-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA-IRMS) and liquid chromatography coupled to isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA/LC-IRMS).
In this method from 2008, data obtained using EA-IRMS (AOAC 998.12) and LC-IRMS were considered to define a set of purity criteria for honey samples. All the sugars in honey were taken into consideration including di-, tri- and oligosaccharides. The purity criteria have not been formally endorsed by competent authorities, standard developing organisations or trade associations.
Added sugar or botanical source and origin issues
The European Commission wanted to assess the market prevalence of honey adulterated with sugars and mislabelled with regard to botanical source or geographical origin.
Following the results, it said it will speak to relevant stakeholders on an ‘appropriate’ follow-up.
Norbert Erdős, of the European People's Party, said members of parliament were told in March 2016 of preliminary results indicating adulteration was found in 17% of mixed honey samples from the internal market.
He said producers in the EU had told him that adulterated honey from South-East Asia, mainly China, is on the internal EU market in great quantities, resulting in low producer prices.
Erdős also questioned in a written question why results had taken so long.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said of samples tested only four were collected at the border by Member States.
“The final report of the JRC has been delayed due to the technical complexity of the analytical techniques which were used to detect added sugars and the internal quality assurance procedures.”
All 28 Member States plus Norway and Switzerland collected 2,264 honey samples at all stages of the supply chain with the majority (45%) from retailers.
All samples were analysed by Member States to check compliance with the EU Honey Directive, sensory characteristics and pollen profiles (Tier 1). Those compliant were submitted to sugar analysis (Tier 2) and those still compliant were sent to JRC for stable carbon isotope analysis by elemental analysis-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA-IRMS) and a combination of EA-IRMS and liquid chromatography coupled to isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA/LC-IRMS (Tier 3) to identify adulteration with added sugars.
Non-compliances detected by Member States in Tier 1 and Tier 2 tests, were mostly related to declaration of the botanical source (7%) and adulteration with sugar (6%).
Non-compliances related to declaration of the geographical origin were less frequent (2%).
JRC received 893 samples found compliant or suspicious by Member States for analysis by EA/LC-IRMS. The method only indicates presence of foreign sugars it does not quantify level of addition.
How to define authentic
Natural variability of honey composition due to geographical, environmental factors and botanical origins creates uncertainty in interpretation of analytical results, which relies on availability of databases established with authentic honey samples using validated analytical methods.
Retail honeys are often commercial blends of various geographical and botanical origins which make it more difficult to set boundaries, said the JRC.
Addition of sugars from C4 plants (sugarcane, maize) can be reliably detected by the EA-IRMS method with a sensitivity of 7%.
Around 20% of honeys either declared as blends of EU honeys (19 of 96), or unblended honeys bearing a geographical reference related to an EU Member State (53 of 275) or a third country (11 of 55) were found to be suspicious of containing added sugar.
The rate of suspicious honeys was around 10% for blends of EU and non-EU honeys (40 of 426), blends of non-EU honeys (3 of 30), and honey of unknown origin (one of 11).
The rate of non-compliance of honeys was slightly higher for honey declared as monofloral in relation to polyfloral.
A suspicion of non-compliance of 36% was found for honeydew honey compared to 12% for blossom honey pointing out susceptibility of honeydew honey most likely using sugar syrups from C3 plants.
Global market outlook
With a production of around 250,000 tonnes per year in 2015, the EU is the second largest producer after China. Other main producers are Turkey with a steady output increase, Ukraine and the US.
The EU imported around 200,000 tonnes of honey in the same year, representing in volume around 75% of EU total production. The three main EU producers are Romania, Spain and Germany.
Half of imports came from China and the other two main suppliers were Mexico and Ukraine.
The average import unit price in 2015 for Chinese honey was 1.64 €.kg while the average EU price of multi-floral honey sold in bulk at wholesalers was 3.78 €.kg.
In the US there is no federal standard of identity, which hampers regulatory efforts to ensure safety and quality, according to a 2014 study by Sarah Easter Strayer, Karen Everstine and Shaun Kennedy.
Several types of economically-motivated adulteration (EMA) have been identified including dilution with less expensive syrups, supplemental feeding of honey bees, unapproved use of antibiotics and masking country of origin.
One common type of EMA involves extending or diluting honey with other less expensive sweeteners. Commonly identified extenders are corn, cane and beet syrups.
Honey regulation has been hampered by a lack of a federal standard of identity, limits of detection of analytical methods and trade policies.
Stable carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry (SCIRA) can identify adulteration of honey with syrups that imitate the sugar profile of honey with a detection limit of 20%.
The Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC) International official method for testing EMA in honey (AOAC 998.12) couples SCIRA with isolated honey protein levels.
This improves the test sensitivity and lowered the detection limit to 7%.
Meanwhile, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has begun a consultation on a scientific definition to authenticate New Zealand mānuka honey.
Consultation on the proposals closes on 23 May.
The definition uses five attributes (four chemicals and a DNA marker) that, when present at specified levels, provide evidence the honey is New Zealand mānuka honey.
Bryan Wilson, deputy director-general, said the proposed definition and export requirements are important for continued growth of the export honey industry.
"Working with contracted experts, MPI has undertaken a three-year programme to provide a science-based definition that can determine whether or not honey is authentic New Zealand mānuka honey," he said.
“It is important that overseas regulators have confidence in the assurances we give them about New Zealand mānuka honey, and that consumers in those countries are confident they are getting the real deal.
“If not, our access to markets could be put a risk or we may lose the premium price which our bee products command overseas.”