Pure controversy

India’s lax food standards stand exposed yet again with a study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reporting widespread adulteration in branded honey. Almost all the top brands had passed the tests of purity in India but when the same brands were tested using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) currently being used globally, only three out of the 13 passed muster. These tests, carried out at a specialised laboratory in Germany, prove how the business of adulteration has evolved so that it can pass the stipulated tests in India. All the brands that failed the test advertised themselves as “pure” but allegedly showed a high concentration of sugar syrups. Interestingly, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had implicitly acknowledged that this practice was rampant and had made NMR testing mandatory for honey for export from August 1 this year. It had also warned importers and state food commissioners that rice syrup, golden syrup (made from cane sugar), and invert sugar syrup were being used to adulterate honey. CSE investigations revealed, however, that these three sugars were either not imported under these names or are not indicated for adulteration. Instead, the CSE report stated, Chinese importers — including on portals such as Alibaba — were offering branded honey makers fructose syrup that can bypass FSSAI’s 2020 standards for honey, an indication perhaps that the food standards regulator was unaware of the extent of the scam.

Predictably, the report, which the CSE has submitted to the FSSAI, has set off a series of denials from the brands mentioned in the report. But it is clear that the issue of purity in honey has been a source of controversy for some years. In 2016, for instance, Emami launched its Zandu brand of honey — one of the products to fail CSE’s tests — and complained to the Advertising Standards Council of India that the claims by Dabur, which also failed, of meeting EU standards were false. In October, Marico Saffola, which entered the market this year and was one of the three brands to pass muster, had also filed a complaint against Dabur, which has a dominant position in the branded honey market, asserting that the latter’s claim that it was NMR tested was, among other things, “false and misleading”.  Marico has filed another complaint before the ASCI after CSE’s report and Dabur has returned the compliment with an ASCI complaint against Saffola’s purity claims.

The fierce nature of the rivalry reflects the high stakes in the branded honey business. It is now a Rs 1,730-crore business, according to market research company IMARC Services, and by some estimates it is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of over 10 per cent. Against the growing demand for health foods, the famed antioxidant properties of honey has enhanced its popularity in recent years, which the outbreak of Covid-19 has accentuated. The current controversy has been precipitated by the lack of clarity on adulterants and food testing standards. It also highlights the poor quality of FSSAI’s monitoring and intelligence infrastructure. Augmenting and improving food safety standards are, however, becoming critical and demand the highest standards of acceptability and vigilance from the regulator. The ruckus of honey brands should be a cautionary tale.


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