The uproar stemmed from a report published by the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Insustries (MPI) which performed analysis on some 300 honey samples from both retail packed and raw (non-processed, not for sale) sources, and found that 62 of these samples (20.7%) contained glyphosate residues of glyphosate between the laboratory limit of reporting and current regulatory levels.
The ‘laboratory limit of reporting’ refers to the smallest concentration of a chemical that can be reported by the lab, and going this limit means that it is detectable but not necessarily at dangerous levels. Going above regulatory levels would be different, as it would entail a definite food safety concern – but this did not happen here.
“None of the sampled honey that was available for sale had glyphosate residues above the regulatory limits and there are no food safety concerns at all – that has not come across at all in any media, it was quite sensationalist reporting,” Apiculture New Zealand Chief Executive Karin Kos told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“We have had a lot more queries from consumers since this whole thing started though, so it really is not so much a food safety issue as it is a consumer perspective and reputational issue, given that the New Zealand brand is so closely tied to clean, green and high quality, and we are aware and trying to mitigate the effects of this.”
The report also showed that five samples (around 1.7%) had shown glyphosate residues above the regulatory limits, but Kos clarified that these were raw, unprocessed honey samples that were not meant for sale to the public.
“Honey that is made available for retail sale is processed and either the contamination is removed or it will be blended out – but either way no products with residue levels above what is allowed will make its way onto shelves,” she said.
The New Zealand Food Safety Department, under MPI, recently also issued a statement to emphasise the safety of locally produced honey.
“There were no food safety concerns [identified in any of the honey samples analysed] by MPI - The results of these surveys showed residues levels and prevalence rates comparable to or lower than published in other international reports and studies,” said New Zealand Food Safety Director Assurance Allan Kinsella.
“For context, a five year-old child who was consuming honey with 0.1 mg/kg of glyphosate residues (the default maximum residue level in New Zealand) would need to eat roughly 230kg of honey every day for the rest of their life to reach the World Health Organization Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate.”
That said, this statement has been met with derision by organisations protesting glyphosate usage, calling this ‘no-worries attitude’ by MPI a cause for concern.
“We should be learning from our history of food contamination with pesticides, not repeating the same mistakes. The banning of endosulfan in NZ in 2008 only came about because of the rejection by South Korea of New Zealand beef contaminated by that insecticide,” said Pesticides Action Network Aotearoa New Zealand Coordinator Dr Meriel Watts.
“[Endosulfan] was swiftly banned by NZ when trade was at risk - How long before glyphosate becomes the same pariah as endosulfan did in 2008, which was banned globally in 2011 following the New Zealand ban?”
To be fair, some queries still remain unanswered. For one, clover honey and manuka honey showed 27% and 24% of tainted samples detected respectively, much higher than the 12% or less in all other types of honey analysed, and a follow-up study on manuka also found 11 out of 60 retail packed samples to contain glyphosate residues above laboratory limits but below regulatory levels, which remains a mystery.
“Clover is often used for cropping by the agriculture industry so that is likely why, but we’re still not yet sure how the glyphosate got into the 11 manuka samples,” said Kos.
“Manuka can usually only be obtained by going to isolated areas and helicoptering these out, areas which are not supposed to have any pesticide exposure - There is some manuka found on farmland, so that could be the answer, but we’re not sure yet.”
What is being done
The emphasis for the honey industry though, is that there are no food safety concerns that consumers need to be concerned about, even as it continues to work on ways to improve the situation.
“One thing this highlights to us is the importance of beekeepers being aware of the issue and communicating with their agricultural partners (beekeepers in New Zealand usually place their hives on farmland or bush owned by other farmers) about pesticide spraying so as to move their hives away from the spray areas accordingly, so we’re talking to them about that,” she said.
“The other thing is that more testing is now being done by companies due to the increased awareness, even though regimens had already been in place since last year. The situation now is that regular testing is conducted in the market before any sample is sold, so consumers need not worry.”
When asked whether this issue is expected to import honey exports, she said that this was unlikely.
“I don’t think this will translate into an export loss, especially as our export sales over the last few months have been really strong, as well as with all the increased testing, and industry and government working together to address this,” she said.
“We’re an agricultural nation dependent on sprays so I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a ban but I will say education is needed for everyone from horticulture to agriculture to use sprays carefully and think about the impact on our bees and our food.”