• A leading agricultural economist has warned that the 'natural honey' on South African tables may in fact be mixed with syrup.
  • A new exposé has revealed alarming practices among Chinese honey producers.
  • But government says it is not aware of any problems with Chinese honey imports.

There is a high likelihood that South Africans may be unwittingly eating ‘natural honey’ that in fact has been mixed with syrup, says the Agbiz agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo. 

The recent Netflix documentary Rotten has exposed alarming abuses in the Chinese honey industry, including that Chinese producers are mixing honey with rice and corn syrup to make it go further. While sold as ‘100% natural honey’, some Chinese honey also contains antibiotics that can be dangerous to humans. 

Worryingly, South Africa imports massive amounts of Chinese honey, says Sihlobo.

Statistics from the International Trade Commission (based on SA Revenue Services data) show that imports of Chinese honey to South Africa have rocketed from 20 tonnes in 2001 to 3,577 tonnes last year. South African bee producers deliver 2,000 tonnes per annum.  

Some 85% of honey imports to South Africa now come from China. This has come at the cost of New Zealand, whose exports to SA fell from 300 tonnes to 3 tonnes between 2001 and 2017.

“What is truly alarming is that people who are eating honey because of its lower glycemic index, may be inadvertently consuming huge amounts of sugar,” Sihlobo told Business Insider South Africa.

Sihlobo says some of the honey brands available in South Africa are improbably cheap. “Given the high cost of beekeeping due to dying bee populations, this is further evidence that the honey we buy may be mixed with syrup.”

The documentary details how elaborate testing of Chinese honey in the US could not detect contaminants as the honey is filtered through incredibly fine filters. Sihlobo says Germany authorities have similar problems and that the South Africa testing may also not be able to pick up these quality issues.

Wandile Sihlobo is an agricultural economist and head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz).

However, Bomikazi Molapo, spokesperson for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, told Business Insider South Africa that the department is not aware of any Chinese honey which is not compliant with SA regulations. 

"The department applies, in  a consistent and uniform  manner, regulatory controls to all imported products from all countries importing to South Africa. There are regulatory controls against which honey is subjected to, including compositional tests in terms of the Agricultural Product Standards Act 119 of 1990. Not only Chinese honey but all imported honey is subjected to the same control."

She added that it would be against the World Trade Organisation rules to merely target Chinese honey without any reasonable grounds.
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