The EU imports about 40% of its honey consumption, making it the world's second largest importer after the United States.

The survey by the European Commission's research service and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), published on Thursday, shows that out of 320 samples recently checked in sixteen member states, around 46% are strongly suspected of derogating from EU rules. This is much higher than the 14% recorded in the last study in 2015-1017.

In detail, 74% of the 89 honeys from China were considered suspicious, as were almost all honeys imported from Turkey (14 out of 15).

All 10 honeys entered by the United Kingdom are considered non-compliant, "probably due to blends of honey produced elsewhere before re-export". Ukrainian, Mexican and Brazilian honeys are also pinned.

The main fraudulent technique is the addition of sugar syrups (from rice, wheat or beet) to lower the price, but the report also mentions the use of additives and colours or the falsification of traceability information.

"Honey naturally contains sugars and, according to EU legislation, it must remain pure: there can be no water or cheap sugar syrups artificially added to increase the volume," recalls Olaf.

The average value of imported honey was thus 2.32 euros/kg in 2021, compared to a cost of 0.40-0.60 euros/kg for rice-based sugar syrups.

"If the risk to human health is low, such practices deceive consumers and disadvantage honest producers in the face of unfair competition," insists the anti-fraud gendarme.

"Unfair competition"

"This alarming result shows that the European market is a real sieve that allows fraudsters to sell their fake products," said consumer NGO Foodwatch.

These figures "shed light on this deception: the EU market flooded with +honey+ syrup base", abounds the powerful agricultural confederation Copa-Cogeca, pointing to the danger of an "annihilation" of European beekeeping at a time when honey bee populations are already falling.

The problem seems systemic: out of 123 honey exporters to Europe, 70 are suspected of having adulterated their products, and out of 95 European importers checked, two-thirds are involved in at least one suspect batch.

To date, "44 operators in the EU have been investigated and seven have been sanctioned," says Olaf.

Of the 21 samples taken in France, only 4 were "real honey". In Germany, which accounts for a third of European imports, half of the 32 samples taken were suspect.

Foodwatch calls for "means of control to match", "a harmonized methodology to detect fraud", and especially "to urgently correct the opacity" on the composition of honeys.

The situation alarms the Member States: in January, some twenty of them, including the France, asked the European Commission to tighten the transparency obligations in its expected revision of the existing 2001 regulation.

"The current rules put honey producers from a single country on an equal footing with producers of honey blends," said a statement drafted by Slovenia and supported by 19 other states, calling for changes to labelling rules to "provide more detailed information on the origin of honey" and "improve the profitability of the sector".

Copa-Cogeca proposes to make it mandatory on the labels of honey mixtures "the indication of the different countries of origin in descending order with the percentages", and calls for "systematic checks of imported consignments of honey".

© 2023 AFP