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Food Hazard Associated with Honey – Antibiotic Residues

Food Hazard Associated with Honey – Antibiotic Residues


(CMA Testing and Certification Laboratories)

Many peoples love eating honey because of its sweetness and distinctive aroma, in addition to high nutritional value. However, few days ago media reported that honey products made in Taiwan were detected with tetracycline (an antibiotic), and probably exported into Hong Kong.

Detection of tetracycline in honey - Seizure of 690 canned honey

Photo Source:FTV News Channel

Why are Antibiotics Being Found in Honey?

Honey is produced by bees collecting nectars in flowers or honeydrew, and mixing with their own secretions. In order to prevent and treat bacterial infection in bees, bee farmers may use different types of antibiotics (or antimicrobials). Excessive use of antibiotics will lead to accumulation of antibiotic residues in honey.

Photo Source:Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China

If peoples consume prohibited or excessive antibiotics, adverse health effects may occur. Below are some examples of antibiotics / antimicrobials commonly found in honey:

Detection of Antibiotic Residues in Honey Sold in Hong Kong and Europe

In Hong Kong, the Consumer Council1 once tested 55 samples of honey sold in the market in year 2013. It was found that 6 of the samples contained small quantities (ng/kg) of antibiotic residues. This included tetracyclines, sulfonamides, streptomycins and quinolones. Moreover, the Consumer Council also revealed the presence of chloramphenicol in honey in 2006.

1 Sugars - Adulteration and Antibiotics Residues Detected in Honey - CHOICE

In Europe, there are researchers2 analyzing the honey related notifications of the Rapid Alarm System for Food and Feed during 2009 to 2013. It revealed that over 70% of the notifications were due to detection of antimicrobial (including antibiotic) residues. This included sulfonamides (35%), tetracyclines (15%), nitrofurans (13%), lincomycin (13%), aminoglycosides (10%), nitroimidazoles (8%), macrolides (5%) and quinolones (3%).

2 Galarini. R., Saluti, G., Giusepponi, D., Rossi, R., & Moretti, S. (2015). Multiclass determination of 27 antibiotics in honey. Food Control, 48, 12-24

Tolerance Level of Antibiotic Residues in Honey

Some countries or territories already strictly regulate the presence of antibiotic residues in honey.

For example, European Union (EU) does not allow the use of antibiotics to prevent and treat bacterial diseases in bees at all. Therefore, no maximum residue limits (MRLs) for antibiotics are established for honey. However, without MRLs does not mean honey sold in EU is not regulated. Instead, it means detection of any antibiotic residues without MRLs in imported honey will make the marketing of consignments illegal in the EU.

Similarly, Australia also adopts a “not detected” approach for most antibiotics possibly detected in honey. To date, Australia has established a MRL for oxytetracycline in honey (0.3 mg/kg).

In Hong Kong, at present there is no specific law governing the acceptable level of antibiotics in honey. Cap 132 AF Harmful Substances in Food Regulation only stipulates MRLs for antibiotics in specified food matrices other than honey. If honey sold in Hong Kong is detected with antibiotics, the authority shall conduct a risk assessment to determine if the honey is fit for human consumption.

Other Food Hazards and Problems Associated with Honey

Apart from antibiotic residues, honey can also be associated with other food safety hazards like heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria and toxins, as well as honey authenticity issues. In the upcoming article, we will look into those problems.