Honeygate and China connection: CSE’s adulteration investigation reveals shocking details

Environment watchdog CSE’s claim that adulterated honey is being sold by 13 top and some smaller brands in India has triggered a massive debate online. On Wednesday, the Centre for Science and Environment released a study claiming that honey samples from leading brands such as Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkari and Apis Himalaya were found to be adulterated with sugar syrup.

All of these top brands failed the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) test, which is considered the gold standard for testing the quality of honey. Only three brands passed the test — Saffola, MarkfedSohna and Nature’s Nectar (one out of two samples).

While the study’s findings have exposed the rampant adulteration of packaged honey sold in Indian markets, a deeper investigation CSE conducted has also found a connection between ‘Honeygate’ and China.

‘Honeygate’ and the China connection

In its study, CSE highlighted that three primary types of syrups — golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup — are being used for adulteration of honey.

It added that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had alerted importers and state good commissioners regarding the adulteration last year. Despite the warning, such syrups are somehow being imported into the country, suggested the CSE.

Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE’s Food Safety and Toxins team, said that the three imported sugar syrups named by FSSAI are “either not imported in these names or are not indicted for adulteration”.

Also Read | Dabur, Patanjali among 13 brands adulterating honey with sugar syrup: CSE study

He claimed that Chinese companies are mostly exporting this syrup as fructose to India.

“Instead, Chinese companies are mostly exporting this syrup as fructose to India. So, why did FSSAI put out what is clearly an erroneous order? We are not certain,” Khurana said.

“It remains unclear how much does the food regulator really know about this murky business.”

The ‘Honey’ investigation

CSE claimed that it tracked down Chinese trade portals like Alibaba which were “advertising fructose syrup that can bypass tests”.

During the course of the investigation, it also found that the same Chinese companies that advertised fructose syrup — which can beat C3 and C4 tests — also exported to India. The environment watchdog then conducted an undercover operation to dig deeper.

It sent emails to Chinese companies soliciting these syrups, which the companies claimed could pass the tests in India. Not surprisingly, it received replies that the syrups were available and could be sent to India.

“Chinese companies informed CSE that even if 50-80 per cent of the honey is adulterated with syrup it would pass all stipulated tests. A sample of the syrup that can bypass tests was then sent by the Chinese company as “paint pigment” to get through customs,” the study noted.

CSE also tracked down a factory that manufactures syrup for honey adulteration in Jaspur, Uttarakhand. The CSE researchers made contact with the factory and procured a sample. Researchers then adulterated samples of pure honey with the procured syrup and found that they passed tests for purity.

“What was shocking to find is that adulterated samples with 25 per cent and 50 per cent sugar syrup passed the test of purity. In this way, we confirmed that sugar syrups exist that can bypass the 2020 FSSAI standard for honey,” said Khurana

Commenting on the findings, CSE Director General Sunita Narain, said, “It is time we outwitted the business of adulteration. We have the following ‘asks’ from the government, industry and consumers”

She also urged the government to stop importing syrups from China and also strengthen enforcement in India through public testing so that companies are held responsible.

“Government should get samples tested using advanced technologies and make this information public so that consumers are aware and our health is not compromised. It will also hold companies responsible. Ensure that every honey company is required to trace back the origins of the honey from the beekeeper to the hive,” Narain added.

CSE stands by its investigation

Earlier in the day, Dabur rejected findings of the CSE report and said it is the only company in India to have an NMR testing equipment in its own laboratory. Dabur added that the reports “seem motivated and aimed at maligning the brand”. Patanjali and Emami have also questioned the study conducted by CSE.

Responding to their statement, CSE said in a press release issued on Thursday said it stands by its findings.

“We stand by our findings. Our findings have revealed that 10 out of 13 brands have failed all tests of purity. Most of these are big brands, including Dabur. This is not only about Dabur. In fact, we have talked about how smaller brands are also adulterated. This is about the consumer’s health. We have shared detailed laboratory results of all samples on our website,” CSE said.

Commenting on the NMR test report shared by Dabur, CSE said it is a report of the Broker equipment/machine for NMR profiling.

“Bruker is a company which developed NMR and promotes it. We would like to make the consumer aware that this is not a laboratory report, which involves expert interpretation of the information by the equipment,” CSE said.

“In the case of NMR, it is critical that final conclusion on a sample’s adulteration is based on interpretation and confirmation by a laboratory expert on NMR. Even the report shared by Dabur mentions that expert interpretation is necessary before deducing any conclusion,” the statement added.

The environment watchdog also claimed that it has shared findings based on laboratory reports from Germany and that it involves expert interpretation and confirmation of the data obtained by the equipment/machine. “This is a universally accepted practice,” it said.

CSE further highlighted that Dabur has shared the report of only one sample. “Also, there is no mention of the batch number of the sample tested. So, it remains unclear which batch is being talked about,” CSE said.

“On the other hand, we have provided three batch numbers of three samples tested of Dabur; that is BM3463, with the date of manufacture of May 25, 2020; BM3589, manufactured on July 10, 2020; and BM3636, manufactured on August 5, 2020. All three batches were found to be adulterated. In the absence of this information on laboratory test by the batch number, Dabur’s claim of purity is not tenable,” it added.

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