A British Columbia beekeeper spends $1 million on a new test and implores the government to make sure it is used
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency uses an ineffective method to detect fake honey, which has forced a Canadian beekeeper to take matters into his own hands.
Peter Awram is a second-generation beekeeper who has apiary facilities in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and produces honey north of Edmonton.
“There is so much fraud in the industry, and I don’t know whether the industry will survive if something isn’t done about it,” Awram said.
Awram has a PhD in molecular biology, and after he examined a new method to detect fraudulent honey, which uses high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), he became convinced the Canadian beekeeping industry should adopt it.
“I spent a year saying the CFIA should be doing this, or the governments. The Alberta government has the facilities, but there is no will,” Awram said.
“The Alberta government basically said it’s five years before we can have this up and running. Five years from now at the current rate there may not be a honey industry.”
Bruker, an established supplier of analytical instruments, developed the NMR machine and testing procedures, dubbed Honey-Profiling 2.0, about five years ago.
It cost Awram close to $1 million to build a laboratory, import the machine and set it up, but it is much more capable of detecting adulterated honey than the industry standard test — the stable isotope ratio analysis that looks for C-4 sugars (C-4 test).
“These machines (NMR) have been developed to basically look at the hydrogen atoms on a molecule, and the arrangement, and when you use an analytic lab, you can basically puzzle out the molecule structure,” Awram said.
This testing method differs from other methods for detecting adulterated honey because it looks at everything in the sample, and users receive a spectra of all the different kinds of molecules that are in that sample of honey.
This allows users to get a detailed understanding of what kind of sugars are in a sample.
“The majority is glucose and fructose, but there is also a whole lot of minor ones, so you can develop these sugar profiles and look at them and you can really tell, not just that it’s honey but what kind, so whether it’s from clover, or canola, or alfalfa,” Awram said.
For instance, when Awram examines a sample of blueberry honey, he sees distinct peaks in the analytical spectrum.
“It really gives you the possibility of finding out where the honey came from,” he said.
“It’s supposed to be possible to even tell geographic origin with this machine. Part of what I’m doing is trying to flesh that out.”
He said NMR machines are common, and most universities have one. However, the specific probe that he uses is not common, and specific procedures and conditions for the sample preparation must be very consistent so that the samples provide precise peaks that can be compared.
“You do these ring tests so machines around the world will process the same sample and make sure the results are comparable,” he said.
Only around 16 of these specific NMR machines produced by Bruker are operational in the world, and he says his is the only machine in Canada.
Awram has received a $175,000 grant from the British Columbia government to compile a database of honey produced in the province, and he is also collecting authentic honey samples from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
However, Awram said he needs more funding to compile a nationwide database of Canadian honey.
Once a database is established, regulators can use it to track samples — similar to how police use a fingerprint database.
“We are going to start generating a database of authentic honey from across Canada,” Awram said.
“Then you can really use this machine to test if honey is authentic and where it came from in Canada, if it is actually Canadian.”
During the course of cataloging authentic honey, Awram also wants to start compiling a database of fake honey.
He’s working with another honey producer who contacted a Chinese supplier of rice syrup for the purpose of creating adulterated honey through Alibaba.com.
“It’s really easy to get in touch with these people who are offering rice syrup to dilute your honey with,” he said.
“In fact it was amazingly easy to find these people. I’m getting a sample and they are forthright about it: does it need to pass certain tests, and they’ll tell you how to mix it. They are also very straight forward that what they have cannot pass NMR.”
Because it is so easy to adulterate honey with rice syrup, the entire honey industry is looked upon with suspicion, which is making the survivability of Canadian beekeepers questionable, Awram said
He said U.S. honey importers fear Canada is transshipping adulterated Chinese honey, even though there is little evidence of this occurring.
“But half the problem with all this is perception,” he said.
“Canadian honey is not getting the price in the (United) States it used to. It’s getting treated the same level as cheap honey from the Ukraine, and the price we get selling to the States, our biggest market, is pretty dismal.”
He said there is also the potential of scaring consumers away from honey.
For instance, he said total honey sales in Australia dropped by seven percent after a major investigation into fraudulent honey in that country.
“If all this stuff gets out there and we have no answers, that can destroy the business just as much,” he said.
“I figure if the Canadian beekeepers can start saying, ‘we know there is a problem, this is what we’re doing about it,’ that is worth an awful lot.”
Awram said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency seems to focus on searching for things such as banned antibiotics, largely because the protocols are well-established and effective at finding low levels in honey.
“As far as adulteration, I don’t think the CFIA is doing anything at all,” Awram said.
“They use this C-4 test, which is kind of the world standard for testing for adulteration, but it doesn’t work.
“It only actually works against corn syrup because of the way the plants make the starch. Against rice syrup it’s totally useless.”
He said fraudsters are well aware that corn syrup can be detected so they use rice syrup instead.
In an email response, the CFIA said it has started to look into the NMR technology for identifying adulterated honey.
However, the agency could not provide a time frame for when it will use NMR technology to detect fake honey in Canada.
“The CFIA has contracted the services of a third party laboratory to conduct NMR analysis of honey samples taken for authenticity determination,” the email said.
“The CFIA is also collaborating with the National Research Council in Halifax investigating NMR techniques for the analysis of honey.”
Awram said he hopes the CFIA will eventually buy his machine or pay him to use it, but in the meantime he’s looking for support from Canadian beekeepers.
“The actual operation of the machine, that’s what I’m looking for money for,” he said.
“I have my B.C. grant, but I need more money from other people. I need buy-in from beekeepers, and to me it’s useful for the beekeepers not only from a testing perspective, but also from a marketing perspective.”